Aphelion Issue 250, Volume 24
May 2020
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Forgotten Girl

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 would answer.

"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 in bureaucracy.

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 black.

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 multiplied tenfold.

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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