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The Hunted

Linda Falorio, 1990

 

 

The man lay feverish and twisted, beyond help, beyond hope. And with the instinctive gesture of animal submission, he waited; as the creature's glittering eyes bore down on him. They were hideous; insane with a mixture of inchoate lust, and fear. A tangle of filthy hair writhed about the head Medusa-like, encrusted talons arched to make a final slashing thrust. So that when at last he heard trampling through the deadened underbrush he only thought that it was more of Them; and the terror rose within him, blotting out his consciousness into a blackened sea, as a light bulb flares and then explodes into darkness.

"What the ...? Hey Jum, come look at this!" A huge man suddenly emerged from the tangle of the underbrush, and he bent over the inert body covered with orange-red Autumn leaves.

"Hey buddy, you O.K.?" he asked as he slapped the broken man lightly on his death-pale cheeks. He hauled him from the leaves: "Here. Sit down. Take a shot of this. "

He had propped the lifeless body on a log, pulled the head back by its shock of yellow hair and forced some whiskey down the slackened throat. The whiskey made him choke; and he spluttered, a glint of life coming slowly back into the glazed-blue eyes, and with it the terrible fear.

"Don't worry buddy, you'll be just fine in no time," the huge man said and nudged him reassuringly, his giant raw-boned hand curled into a playful fist. "I'm Chats and this is Jum," he said and motioned to a haystack of a man emerging from the brush, all hair and beard and baggy blue jeans.

"We're checking out the Serpent Mounds. Our camp is just over that hill..."

"He has no idea what in hell you're talking about," Jum interrupted, noting the dazed expression on the pale white face, blue eyes as cold as death. "Let's get him back to camp."

He hauled the unknown man onto his feet; but the knees gave way, buckling beneath him and he would have fallen in a heap upon the leaves.

 

"Shit. Chats, you get on the other side of him ... looks like we'll have to portage him to camp."

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"What in the world were you doing all alone in these woods?" Chats asked at last, shoving yet another shot of Irish whiskey toward the nameless man. He seemed somehow a little better, though the look of terror still flickered in the shadows of the glazed-blue eyes.

"Huntin' ... " he answered slowly. "But it's not hunting season yet."

"Bow-huntin' ... must've lost m'gear somewheres in the woods "But weren't you with someone? A buddy or something?"

The man shrugged. "Like to go out alone. Done it ever'year."

"What in hell happened to you, then?" Jum asked, his eyebrow arching as he licked the end-paper of his home-rolled cigarette.

The man shook and shook his head as if flinging something from him, as if a veil was obscuring something he dared not recall.

"Not sure ... a'was trackin' this big buck, see ... 'fourteen pounder at the least ... and a, well, 'e just seemed to kind of lead me on, see ... and a, no snow so it's damned hard to track 'em, see, and a, they just kind of blend into the scenery, see. But this one kind of waited fr me, see ... and a, 'e led deeper an' deeper into th'woods, see ... and a'got turned around like a'was goin' all in circles, see. Then all of a sudden ... there 'e was, just standin' on top of that hill ... "

"... the Serpent Mound!" The men were struck with instant recognition; though the nameless man had only gestured vaguely to the north.

Chats glanced nervously at Jum. Something about the man's story was getting under his skin. These woods had always made him jumpy, especially after two years service in the thick and tangled forests of Vietnam ... voluptuous land of striking contrasts, of unbearable beauty mingled with bright death ... where the omnipresent smell of danger lurked behind liana draped trees.

"... and there 'e was, proud as could be," the man continued, "... but the funny thing was, see, then 'e didn't seem like no buck at all. A'swear 'e looked just like a man wearin' some kinda antlers on 's head! Then 'e looked me straight in th'eye and bolted back into th'woods.

"Then what?" Jum asked, leaning intently forward, so that beard and feet were all that one could see.

"A' fixed a' arrow on m'bow to take a shot!" the man replied, then hesitated, his voice becoming very low: "... that's when th' Others come upon me. Thought for sure then a'was dead ... they'd tear me all to shreds ... "

"Who, what were they?" Chats demanded, running raw-boned hands through thick red curly hair.

The night wind moaned; and the dazed expression for a moment crossed the nameless face, like the instinctive response of a cornered animal when it knows that it must die . . .

"Forget it," Chats backed off, feeling uneasy at the sudden rising of the wind. "We'll find your gear in the morning. Look, you sleep in the tent tonight, we'll keep watch."

Without a word the man moved quickly towards the fragile safety of the tent, visibly relieved.

"Hey buddy! What's your name?" Chats called out after him.

The man turned slowly toward them with a strange small smile: "They call me 'A'." He shrugged apologetically, then disappeared into the darkness of the tent.

"What do you think?" Jum asked, making the familiar gesture of screwing loose a jar.

Chats made a face, thoughtful as a fragment from a dream began to surface. It had struck some kind of chord; but the dream was all hodgepodge, a jumble of dark faces, strange emotions, primitive, and raw.

"I really don't know ... but it kind of gave me chills when he talked about t antlered man ... " Then he dismissed it with a nervous laugh: "Well, don't forget, I'm Irish, Jum. We're all supposed to be a little bit strange!"

Jum dragged on the home-rolled cigarette. "That bit about the antlered man m not have been as ridiculous as it sounds. Many primitive people have believed in such an antlered god. Mostly in Northern European races, of which the Celts ... your remote ancestors, no doubt ... were one. My theory is that they saw visions a homed or antlered god when they ate Amanita Muscaria ... "

"You mean those red-capped mushrooms with all the white fly-specks..."

"The same. I believe that the ingesting of psychedelic substances is the basis of the religious beliefs of primitive man ... I'm doing my doctoral on it, fact."

"Then you think he could be high?" Chats ventured hopefully, nodding tow the darkened tent outlined against the dusk. For it would have been a great relief write off the man's mad tale to drugs.

"Possibly ... " Jum carefully considered.

That's totally bizarre!" Chats forced a wild and nervous laugh, feeling anxiety rising like a wad of something nasty in his throat.

Jum continued gravely, as if he didn't hear: "The people who built the Serpent Mound were a prehistoric pagan tribe who worshipped the Great Mother Goddess Now you have to understand that in those primitive times, the females held the power ..."

"Come on, Jum! " Chats scoffed. "What would a woman do with power!"

"Oh, but it's true! The King was chosen merely to provide the females of tribe with stud services. Naturally they would want him to be the healthiest, strongest male, in order to improve the genetic stock ..."

Chats stood up and began a nervous pacing: "They couldn't have known about genetics, Jum. Give me a break!"

"But in a primitive way, I suppose they did! At any rate, at certain times there would be a kingship ritual. The members of the tribe would choose a young male, or perhaps several young men who were of a proper age, dress them in deer skins and antlers to typify the god, then send them out into the forest to be hunted."

"You've got to be kidding!"

"Not at all. The women would enflame themselves by eating the Amanita mushroom, daub themselves with mud, and spread into the forest like a pack of hungry wolves. If they happened to capture any of the young men, they would rip their bodies to shreds, violate them, dismember them, and feast upon their living flesh."

"What a horrible thought! But I still don't see how a woman could ever overpower a man! "

"Supposedly the mushrooms gave them superhuman strength. At any rate, if any of the men were able to survive the ordeal for one night from dusk to dawn, when the full moon rose, he would be accepted as their god and king."

"Sounds interesting," Chats smirked.

"Exhausting would be more like it," Jum objected mildly. "The life of the king was never very long. And in the end, they would ritually kill him, then eat his roasted flesh ... with all due ceremony, of course! You could actually tell how many rituals each woman had attended by her elaborate facial tattoos ... '

"You mean that they were cannibals?!! "

Suddenly they both fell silent; these last words echoing strangely in the praeternatural quiet of the woodland night. And they listened to the night; as two owls flew in a hunting pattern toward their camp beside the flooded meadow lake. A bright moon, nearly full, shone upon the quiet waters, and a night-fish stirred. The air becoming crisp with clearing frost, they pulled their blankets close about them as the fire died.

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Morning dawned crisp and bright in the woods of Southeast Ohio, wan sunlight shimmering through the gold of Autumn trees; and the nameless man, the one called "A", was gone.

"Weird! " Chats exclaimed as he poked at the dead and blackened embers of the last night's fire. Then he rose, brushing leaves and dirt from his crumpled cammies, full of the military patches he had earned in Vietnam.

And he wondered at the way his life had changed since those glory days in 'Nam. When he shipped out in '66, idealistic and eighteen, he'd had the sense that he was somehow meant to die. He felt that he would gladly give his blood and bones for his ideals; would gladly die the hero's death of sacrifice for the honor of his Country. That in death his life would achieve some noble purpose. But when he didn't die, when so many of his buddies did, he knew that he was that filthy scum a damned Survivor!

The rotten thought depressed him, nagged constantly, a persistent gnawing at his disillusioned conscience until his life became a nightmare sequence of unending empty gestures: "It don't mean SHEEEIT! " he thought and spat upon the ground.

"That guy sure spooked me" he said then, full of remembrance. "Wish I had my trusty M- 16 ... or even an A-K."

"This is all I need," Jum replied as he patted the worn French-peasant's knife he had fixed onto his belt.

"What do you think you'd do with that thing?" Chats mocked him scornfully. He doubted seriously whether Jum would have lasted Day-One in Vietnam.

"Oh I'm sure that I could handle just about anything that one might meet in these Ohio woods!"

"Jum, you're such a bull-shitter!" Chats turned away. It seemed so hard to communicate sometimes, with someone who hadn't Been There. He sighed: "Let's just grab some coffee, then hit the Mounds. I'll go load my camera."

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The sun died with the promise of the morning, and they tramped the lightless woods all day, tracing the weird serpentine patterns of the Mounds, twisting up the grassy knolls that stretched for miles beneath a dismal Northern sky; Jum taking endless measurements, Chats taking endless rolls of snaps.

"Let's head on back," Chats at last suggested, eyeing the forbidding twilight sky; becoming nervous with the coming of the night.

"Not just yet . . . I've found some kind of weird anomaly here . . . the Mound bulges where it shouldn't. And look, here are some red mushrooms. Amanita, I think. Look at the broken veil --"

"What do you want with those things!" Chats snorted.

"I'll have them identified," Jum replied, deliberately calm, as he plucked a few to put into his bag. "Strange," he mused, distracted, as he poked a stick into the damp and yielding earth. "I think we're onto something . . . maybe there's a cave, or a hole . . . "

The stick broke through with a sudden shower of small stones; and with further probing, he had opened up a hole big as a man.

"What the --! Hand me that flashlight, quick!" And in a moment Jum had disappeared into the ground.

Chat's nostrils curled at the dark and musty odor hissing from the bowels of the earth; and he touched his service patches nervously, and fiddled with the f-stops on his camera. There was something undefined in the odor of the air, something quite disturbing. Then he remembered the stinking places underground where the Enemy would hide.

"This is great! Get down here, we've got to get some pictures!" Jum's voice drifted up to him, muffled by the suffocating earth.

Casting a last apprehensive glance about him through the gathering gloom, Chats crossed himself then climbed into the dark and womb-like hole. In a moment he emerged into a vaulted room whose ceiling arched away into an endless subterranean darkness. The walls seemed hewn, as if by human hands, in what must have been dim ages past; and they exuded glistening droplets of water the color and consistence of coagulated blood. At the far end, he could see tunnels disappearing into a further subterranean darkness.

"Look here," Jum said, motioning with the flashlight's single beam that cut but feebly through the thick and purple shadows.

"What's that?" Chats asked, his eyes following the thin, unsteady wavering of the light.

"Some kind of mummified remains ... Look, the skin has dried like parchment "

"Jesus !" Chats whispered, feeling any moment he would puke; for he saw that the grotesque distorted face was a tangle of tattoos.

"It's an incredible find! This sort of mummification is all but unknown on the continent! "

And the evening wind moaned along the tunnels winding deep into the unseen earth.

"What's that?" Chats demanded, his nerves set tingling.

"What?"

"That scratching coming from the tunnels!"

"Probably just bats "

"Let's get out of here!" Chats hissed with rising panic; for the nervous tingling had grown into a paralyzing chill.

" an incredible find," Jum was saying, "It supports the legends associated with similar mounds in England and elsewhere. They say that when humans began to populate the British Isles, an elder race of proto-humans, 'Faeries', or 'Little People' as they are sometimes called, retreated to live beneath the ground in barrows much like these ... that they had whole communities surviving under the earth. Though after generations, they presumably would have 'devolved' into something perhaps only semi-human, and with no fresh genetic material to replenish the stock, would have eventually died out "

"Look, Jum," Chats insisted, pointing to the radon dial of his watch. "It's getting late. Let's go, for God's sake! Haven't we seen enough?"

"Sure. Sure. We'll just cover our tracks so that no amateurs will bother the site until we can register it with the local authorities as an official archaeological dig."

Though there was no need to cover their tracks, for all evidence of their passing had already been obliterated by the bitter rain-filled wind that beat against the Mound. And pulling up their collars, the men tramped back to camp, knowing well there would be no warming fire lit that dismal night, and they would be forced to settle uneasily to sleep, miserable and damp.

"What's that ?" Chats whispered hoarsely through the thickness of dark night. The wind moaned in furious answer, beat shrilly at the rain-soaked tent until he feared the lines would snap and send it flying. Then suddenly the wind died into an utter silence. Stealthily, he snatched Jum's battered knife from where it lay beneath the comer of his bag, and quietly slipped out.

The wind had blown away the storm, leaving the night air crystal clear and bitter cold. A gibbous moon was setting low on the southwest horizon, shining coldly through the barren skeletons of trees savaged by the wind and violent storm. Yet the night woods were inordinately dark; and the air full of the sharp wet scent of moss, and of the pungent rotting leaves that made no sound at all beneath bare feet. Then, compelled by what he little knew, Chats crept into the brush.

The darkness was hypnotic. Chats' mind remote and blank, his feet turned of their own accord onto an unseen trail; sensing, sensing. Moving him inexorably forward through the silence of the deep night, so that in what seemed but a little time he caught the ominous lumbering shapes outlined against the moonlight the Faery mounds that brooded in the dark.

Again the night wind moaned, though nothing stirred; and that nameless scent within the cave again assailed his nostrils. And keeping to the dark edge of the woods, Chats came round to where Jum's man-made fumarole led deep into the bowels of the earth.

Trembling, he saw there was a light, some subtle phosphorescence that danced upon the Mound, an electromagnetic disturbance of the upper atmosphere that reminded him of August Northern Lights. And strange unhuman voices seemed to issue from the vent beneath the earth.

Sickened, Chats closed his eyes, drew in a breath of sweet night air to clear his head. When he opened them again, without surprise, he saw that he was surrounded.

The creatures were quite small, and seemed but semi-human; for their eyes glowed like night creatures', shining golden in the dark. While the hair was wild; the hands claw-like and encrusted with what had to be dried blood. And their naked, greased and mud-smeared bodies stank, with that acrid odor of unwashed human sweat; stank with that nameless chemistry of lust and mingled fear Chats knew so well from 'Nam.

Instinctively, Chats drew the battered knife out of his belt and flew into the beasts like an enraged Commando; blinded; maddened by that ancient, animal fear, and lust of death. But in the silence they were fast upon him, grasping at his useless, flailing arms; a multitude of talons clawing, mud-smeared bodies writhing like one monstrous chthonic beast with one intent, with one unhuman voice and beastly tongue.

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When Chats came to he found himself a captive in the dark and endless tunnels twisting deep into the bowels of the earth. And the strange lights phosphoresced from yet further subterranean darknesses beneath the brooding Serpent Mound.

He had been propped against the dampness of a hand-hewn wall; and his body ached as if he had been beaten, a multitude of scratches bit and stung. Dazed, he saw he had been stripped while still unconscious; then wrapped in a warm and stinking deer hide newly flayed. And his neck ached with the weight of a tremendous rack of antlers tied upon his head with leather thongs.

Peering into the nether darkness, he could just make out the shifting shapes of a swarm of the dwarf-like creatures gathered by a stinking, smoking fire. Dark tangled hair was curled Medusa-like about their filthy bodies; bright eyes but semi-human shone evilly and leered at him through the foul phosphorescent dark.

Chats watched, transfixed with strangeness as seemingly unhuman tongues licked greedily across a multitude of hungry lips. With tired eyes only vaguely comprehending, he saw a basket passed around; and each one took from it something mushroom-like and red. His mind then numbed with surging panic, for at last he saw that the leering grotesque faces etched by the fire's glow against the dark were covered with tattoos.

He sat for a long time, paralyzed; uncertain whether all was dream or nightmare. But when he didn't wake, he cursed at Jum, and sought for some escape.

Hope kindled in him suddenly, for across the dim-lit cavern there somehow seemed to be the faint flickering of growing daylight. And desperately, Chats staggered to his feet, though fearing all the while that they would stop him, kill and eat him as Jum had said. But when the creatures saw him rise, they merely backed away from his huge bulk as he lumbered toward the salvation of the light.

The deer hide fell from him as he bolted from the earth; his body gleamed with mud and sweat as did the others'. His bare feet pounded down the hard dirt path as he raced through the heavy mist that lay thick upon the dawn-lit forest.

Soon he found a narrow deer path that threaded through the Autumn woods and he turned onto it; the blood pounding through his veins, his heart racing with excitement. The chase uplifted him with a strange animal joy and vigor, so that he seemed at one with the spirit of the woods, at one with the spirit of the earth; so that he wondered at the ancient life-rhythms coursing through him.

Rather than tired from his ordeal, he found himself oddly exhilarated; though he reflected with some small comer of his consciousness that if they caught him, the unhuman beasts would tear his naked body into living shreds. And when he heard the Maenad-creatures cry behind him, unhuman voices echoing through the stillness of the woods, his heart swelled inside him; and he ran pell-mell through the Autumn woods, giddy with excitement; powerful, as he had never been.

He yelled a triumphant yell that somehow was not human, but animal; transformed and primitive beyond description. It was the voice of an ancient, elder god, voice of the Dark One, the homed god, Cernunnos. And then he stopped his flight and turned on his pursuers, for the Power of the ancient one had come upon him.

When they saw he had stopped, they sent forth a wailing, an ululation as of calling out for someone, by which they kept their human stag at bay. Then in a while, a shy creature sidled forward from the center of the howling, heathen group.

She seemed fragile as a doe. There was a silver crescent bound around her slender neck, and a red packet bound across her brow. He found her beautiful, in the way of animals. And in some small, still-sane comer of his consciousness, Chats knew he was a survivor still. And he smiled the cold smile of an animal that has no thought of death.

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The End

 

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