by J. Nichols
The words echoed through the autumn trees, carrying with it the sense
of the lost, the longing to become again that which never was. "We're
all mad here, and it's ok...” words repeated again and again by the
leaves as they fell to the ground, homage to the end of the year. An
early ice was starting to set in, hoar frost starting to form on the
dew laden flora, white turning silvered in the light of the full moon.
And still the words, "We're all mad here..." carrying through and
beyond the darkling wood to the homes and buildings of man and woman,
where soft light and artificially warm air kept the residents within
superficially safe in a false blanket of illusory security.
The stars circled the full moon and the celestial bodies danced, it was
the autumn equinox after all. The dying of the light and the time when
the dark came into ascendance. A time that once drove mortal men to
fear the night and huddle together near communal fires. Some mortals,
rare mortals, would however revere this time, celebrate it. Fires would
be lit, dances made to primal drumming that would resonate through the
frost, and these strange mortals would call to the other world and it
"Mad here, mad here, mad here....” the words finding her, out and alone
on this night of all nights. A slip of a girl, no longer truly a child
nor a woman yet either, she was in a time of change as well and alone.
This wyrdling child, strange child, was out for no other reason than no
one else cared for her. No friends or family to speak of except a
mother that had become a slave to the creations of other lost
individuals desperate to damn others to their existence. So she heard
the words, the chant, and she knew it. Not only from the books of the
author Carrol, but knew it with her heart, for it sounded time and
again within her very soul, albeit a very ancient part. All she could
say if she had been asked was that it called to her in a way that music
calls to others, that art speaks to some, or perhaps closest of all was
the way that religion set chimes within the spirits of some.
So she found herself on this night of all nights out and about, her
soul bared to the strange whisper in the winds, the chill oddly
comforting despite her second-hand and thin garments. The ringing
within her a frightening thing at first, for never before had she felt
such a thing from an emotionally cold existence, and the first response
was one of fear. "It's ok, ok, ok...."
Curiosity in that in between state of age our odd child was in, though,
was so very much more powerful than fear and caution. Overpowering both
reason and the fear placed in her, inherited through her family, her
ancestors, but for one single unknown, one small trace in her blood
that called to that eldritch and forsaken age so long ago. That one odd
progenitor that danced in the chill autumn with stones that sang
without voice. It was that slight and forgotten trace that now spurred
her legs to movement no matter how slow, that quelled the fear and
overpowered the reason with a cat's defining characteristic.
Automobiles passed by with their oblivious occupants and never once
glanced at her, those within fully taken with self-importance; they of
course being the center of their own universes, and so never noticed
the ethereal waif, the unworldly child that trance like made her slow
but purposeful way to where false daylight left off and true night
began. Beyond the faux wooden homes and the barely aware mortals within
them. Past where those that watched over the residents and kept the
communal areas manicured and to give the facade of lush growth while
keeping the wildness firmly at bay. Soon enough her feet brought her
off the hateful asphalt that cut the ground like a scar that would
never properly heal. No longer could she hear the sounds of supposed
civilization. No televisions blaring, no cars belching their poisons,
nor even the hum of the transformers carrying bottled lightning into
the cookie-cutter hovels.
No, now the sounds that reached the waif were those of the earth and
the air, of the water and the spirit. Night hunters with sparkling eyes
and knowing gaze watched her pass, even the she-cat, an old cougaress
that had watched these woods since man first came. She only looked
beside her as the child passed by to the only other creature in these
particular woods that was her age, the old stag. "It has been a long
while hasn't it?” she asked her old friend/foe. His reply was simple.
"Too long." They both were surprised for when they returned their gaze
to mark the passing of the touched child, she had stopped and was
looking at them. "Now that is new.” Stag said, speaking first for the
first time in his long existence. The Huntress was so surprised that
she could only look at him.
But then the first sound touched the woman-girl once more, drawing her
attention away from the two strange creatures that wore the skin of
animals. It was the only sound that mattered anymore. "We're all Mad
here and it's ok...” over and over, each step the voice getting more
and more clear. More and more melodic. The voices of the midnight wood
seemed to enhance and compliment the call, the crickets in the
undergrowth, the elder owl in the branches above, the cool wind playing
across dry leaves and skeletal branches. They all urged her on, so
deeper she pressed, this forgotten waif of the city, the human child on
the cusp of something more.
School had told her that nature is biology and when she came of age for
her body it would begin its change. She had cringed at the bleeding
when it was spoke of, but it had started earlier that day for her.
Suddenly her body had seemed to want to kill her, they hadn't spoke of
the pain but some part of her knew. And knew that she would be fine, it
was her time. They also hadn't told her of the shadows that flitted
everywhere, the miniscule flashes of light in the corner of her vision.
Or of the voice. The voice that was calling her now. It was feminine
and masculine and not at all quite human. So on she walked, following
that voice so very familiar to her soul. Every step purposeful now,
“We’re all Mad here” an echoing chorus in her ears, her mind, no longer
a single voice. “And it’s ok…”
Did she have shoes before? She couldn’t remember. The chill autumn
earth felt alive beneath every step, not a thing readying for a long
sleep. More as a badger moving further into its burrow. Brambles,
twigs, thorns didn’t bother her bare feet, the blood an offering to the
forest as a thanks for being there, honoring a pact that she had no
clue about. Or did she? Her mind swam with memories, so many memories.
Memories that seemed to be taken as soon as they surfaced, and each a
burden left behind.
The Father she could barely remember, always dressed in green in her
memory. Huge and strong and laughing with her always laughing though
his eyes were always seeing someplace, some other time. The day before
she turned seven, and the man in the fancy “Dress Uniform” her father
always called it, stood at the door and handed her Mom a triangle. A
folded flag she thought it to be. Momma in tears, collapsing to the
floor as the man left. Mom didn’t say much after that really ever
again. Her eyes never shone again. These memories swirled forward and
not truly forgotten, but taken away.
Her mother home more and more often, until one day she just didn’t
leave again. She remembered the following years that Mom was always
drinking from her special bottle that our girl/woman was never allowed
to touch. Soon, the bottles were emptied with more frequency. As the
more bottles were emptied, the angrier Mom got. One day when she was
twelve, was the first time her Mom attacked her. In a rage screaming
“How she hated her for looking so much like him! How dare her! She was
forcing her to live with a ghost!”, and all our girl could do was curl
into a ball and wail as the blows seemed to continue forever. This
became a nightly ritual. Until last year.
She expected the beating that never came. Was ready for it, had steeled
herself to the inevitable. But for the first time in so long it didn’t
come. The girl hesitantly crawled into bed and didn’t dare hope. She
was awakened not long after by the sound of sirens and hazy flashing
lights. She couldn’t breathe, it was so very hot and hard to breathe.
She tried to leave her room, but the knob scorched her hand when she
touched it. The window. Safety. Thought was getting more difficult. She
grabbed the small bedside table, the one that had the last picture of
Father framed on it, and smashed the window. Relief. Air. Cool. A voice
screaming “JUMP!” Thoughts so muddled she did without hesitation. That
was a year ago.
“It’s ok, It’s ok, we’re all Mad here” came the chorus now. How long
had she been walking? She didn’t know. Didn’t care. Her clothes had
become shredded, yet the chill did little but caress bared skin, never
getting inside. Shadows flitted between tree and bramble now, shadows
of things neither animal nor human. They watched the waif with
curiosity and could smell the delicious despair on her. But she was not
prey, not this one. One of the shadows dared to step in her path, she
didn’t even seem to see it. A simple movement and she touched it, the
shadow turning to the ash of aged leaves. Never noticing, ever
following the call, she walked forward escorted on both sides by those
shadow things that looked like hounds made of smoke and too many legs.
For a year now she had been in what was called the “System”, foster
homes one after the other. She hadn’t spoken a word since the night of
the fire. She would barely interact with the world around her. The
waif’s world was gone now, she had no world. She existed in a grey
place filled with ghosts. Sometimes the ghosts would do bad bad things
to her, but they were just ghosts. Other ghosts would come and take her
away, put her with new ghosts. It was from the most recent ghost home,
a nice one for once, where she heard the call. The lady ghost, the one
who wore a pretty silver tree necklace, held the door open for her
earlier tonight, and never said a word. It was the first ghost she had
liked. The others treated her as a burden, a weight, or a way to get
money. Other children would beat her, take the few things she had. She
was a ghost herself, a number on paper, paper that fell between cracks
The trees had become tall and old, their bark nearly black with age and
the time of year. Skeletal branches so twined as to almost block the
sky without foliage. Here or there a star could be seen, but the light
of the full harvest moon seemed to always be with the waif. Her path
seemed revealed by the reddish light. Fireflies zipped about her and
she thought nothing of the colors of them. Not just orange and yellow
and green, but purple and pink and blue as well. Had her focus not been
elsewhere, the waif may have noticed they weren’t what she thought. The
little ones would dart in for a look and then out again, speaking to
one another in excited buzzes. “None have made it this far in a great
while” “First girl we’ve seen in many years, since the time of dance”
“The last was when the stones still stood new” “Do you think?” “No, but
maybe…” “Who is she?” And whispered into the night as that last
question was a single word. A word spoken from a throat that made no
sound but scream for a year and a day as of this night. “Avalon.”, the
waif whispered as if in answer to the last question. With that single
word, all gossip stopped.
The moon was high now, full and red. The voices, the chorus still
calling “We’re all Mad here and it’s ok.” There was the drums now,
pounding a beat first felt through the stones beneath her feet then
heard. A fox, with twinkling eyes and beautiful tail, came out to walk
with her. She looked to it, but it seemed to ignore her, so she
followed the chorus and the drums. Her clothing in tatters, she bled
from a hundred small cuts. Welling blood shining like jewels in the
ruby haze moon. In this strange light the fox’s fur looked to be the
same color as the blood.
Not so long after she came to a sheer rock wall, rising high into the
night. Bones, old and bleached littered the bottom. The fox sat and
watched her. At the wall she could find hand holds and cracks, but all
too shallow to be proper hand holds, and the drums and voices were
coming from the top. She could make out the light of fire. She could
hear the song. And sudden determination swelled. But so did trepidation
for the bones littering the base were all human and broken from long
falls. The waif named Avalon pondered and pondered. She then looked to
the fox who was watching her with interest.
In a voice rough from lack of use she asked “Do you know the way to the
top?” and she could have sworn the fox smiled. It turned and walked
down the bluff for a time, then disappearing behind a bush growing
there. She didn’t hesitate and followed. Behind the brush and still
more brambles was a small cave that closer resembled a den of some
sort, though the back couldn’t be seen. No adult could have fit into
such a place, but a waif on the cusp of womanhood? Oh, she would fit
just fine. The grinning fox looked at her once and slipped inside,
smooth as you please.
Hesitating only a moment before the siren song’s pull of “It’s ok, ok,
ok” was all there was once more. She slipped into the small opening,
not dirt but stone. Roughly hewn, but assuredly stone, it went deep
into the bluff and then began to curve upward, ever upward, coiling
like a serpent. Darkness here was absolute, her eyes unable to pick up
any light, only hearing the call ever louder, ever closer; “We’re all
Mad here and it’s ok, ok, ok…” Drums drawing near, a definite rhythm
like nothing she had heard before. Fevered and powerful and demanding
and defiant as if daring anything in creation to stop the beat. And as
the song now gone wordless grew in intensity with the drums, increasing
in tempo and in power the waif began to hurry, her need growing with
the same intensity. Her knees and hands as tattered as her clothing,
her blood marking her passage, the stone itself drinking it in.
The journey took so long she no longer knew if she traveled up or down,
not that it mattered. She could tell the song was close which was all
that mattered. It was going to be ok, the song promised. One final turn
and there was light, almost blinding after having traveled the darkness
for so very long. It was beautiful, cold and silver. She crawled out of
the tunnel only to find more thorns, more blood given, to rose bushes
in full bloom. Roses of such deep purple they may as well have been
None of it mattered. Not any longer. She had found them, the drummers,
wearing faceless masks that covered their heads entirely and seemed to
be made of a black stone, looping circular designs carved into them
that pulsed with a bluish glow with the beat of the drums. The fire
shot high into the sky, a living green color mixing with the reds and
oranges and yellows. Dancers, male and female, formed a flowing circle
around the blaze. The chant was coming from them, voices with a melody
incapable by human voices. They were tall and lithe, their dance making
them seem as if they moved like flowing water so graceful were they.
And so hypnotic, the waif was moving toward them not even realizing.
Until the figure stepped in front of her.
The drums silenced, the dance and chant stopped, all in unison. Save
for the crackle and roar of the fire there was only silence. In front
of her the figure was tall, easily two and half times her height and
thin. This reminded the girl of a sapling from one of the homes she had
been put in, but this figure was robed and hooded, a mask similar to
the drummer save it was perfectly smooth. Yet despite this she could
feel the weight of the gaze from this being, this entity. She knew she
was being judged and measured, that she would wither beneath the
scrutiny of this, this thing. It stepped closer and the weight
Then that spark, that tiny hidden part passed down through the blood
for forgotten generations, that part that had lead her here, exploded
into an inferno. It raced through her body and mind, flooding her with
instinct and knowledge long lost to time and mortality. The waif, stood
and stood strong, tall. Fear was extinguished, replaced by certainty.
She belonged here. She was home. She, the last of her blood, the last
to carry that spark. She knew at last why she was here.
In a voice that carried the weight of ages behind it, she looked at the
figure unflinching and spoke. “My name is Avalon, last of my line. By
ancient pact and promise I come to claim my right. My right to be Mad
and join the dance that feeds the fires of life.”
“Avalon, last of your line”, the robed figure spoke in a language she
knew without knowing, “know that by ancient pact and promise we have
waited for you. Know we are all Mad here and it’s ok. Join the eternal
dance to keep madness and creation alive in the world.” Stepping aside
and gesturing with a long arm, bowing low, “Go then and complete the
circle. Let madness and magic once more flood this sleeping world” the
figure said, a smile evident in the voice even if not seen.
As she stepped forward, her tattered clothes turned to ash. Her body
grew and changed, flowing in form similar to the other dancers. They
welcomed her as long awaited family. Waif no more, she was Avalon
Eternal, Final Dancer of the flame. The drums began again, her body and
soul knowing just what to do. The blaze became an inferno, swirling
colors, blues, greens, whites, reds, yellows, blacks, oranges, violets
and shot high into the night. The dance now complete with the final
dancer, the rhythm unlocked, and the doors of the flame opened once
more, whose light carried magik and power. The light that spilled off
and down the hill, racing outward to reawaken the world.
Those in superficial safety and illusory security were not prepared.
© 2019 J. Nichols
Bio: J. Nichols is a stay-at-home Dad to an Adorable Overlord, a
Lokean, and a Veteran. Living in Missouri his sanity is tenuous at the
best of time, but his wife and partner in all things keeps him on
track. He has been writing off and on for over thirty years, but is
facing fear and sending his words into the world.
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