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