There is a wood between the worlds, where the souls of deer step amid the shadows of trees long fallen, and ferns that grow no more are lush besides creeks long gone dry. It is a place for lost things, and I had come there seeking to lose myself for a while, following the game trails of creatures long lost extinct, and stepping over pale flowering trees crushed by swift glaciers.
Down a glen and up a hill, I came to an opening, ringed about with trees. On each tree was carved a sign or marker, and some stood close enough that roots and branches intertwined, and some stood apart and were subtly different in their aloofness. One great monster was marked by the cross and star, and it's roots stretched like tendrils to wind about those of others - one marked with a simple heart, another with a face that was little more than a clown's triangles and a jagged mouth, another with an egg and rabbit, and all the rest, from saplings to great towering redwoods.
Yet I did not like that great monster tree, and set out from it. Farther away the undergrowth died to reveal grey sandy soil, and the nightmoss bloomed on sick and dying trees marked with faded emblems. Some were obviously dead and fallen, or even petrified in place. One caught my attention, a great grey stump, amid whose roots there was a hole like the burrow of an animal. The cutting had removed the sign that the tree might once have born, but on the smooth table of the stump someone had carved a wolf and a whip.
I stared long at that burrow. It had a breath, as some caves do, a miasma of wet dog fur, and the strange arousing sweat that gathers at the top of the thighs. Visions of Alice flashed through my memory as I resolved to investigate, and wondered what land I might end up in.
It was a burrow, I found, barely big enough for an adult to crawl through. Yet soon the dirt and roots gave way to stone, and I could stand up. It was cool in the cave, but something breathed. I risked a match.
He sat on the throne, and regarded me as I took him in. My first impression was of a satyr, half man and beast, but on closer look I was wrong. The hoofed feet were deformed, but they were human toes, grown large as by some alternate path of evolution, and while clothed mostly in thick curly hair it was true hair, and not matted fur, and I could see the veins stand out on the skin beneath it. Around its waist was a belt made of strips of raw skin, furred on one side, though it did nothing to conceal his nudity. The bare uncircumcised penis was decidedly human. The face could have been cut from Roman marble, and it did not smile.
The match burned my fingers, and I shook out another from the box. Once again there was light.
The walls were painted, and unmoving he watched me as I studied them. A wolf-bitch, suckling two babes. Two men in togas, cutting a dog. A crowd, naked, running through crowded streets - the women being flailed and whipped and hit with sticks, but smiling. Everyone was smiling. The last scene I turned to, as the match burned out, were women with round bellies, whip-marks on their backs.
With the darkness came movement. It wasn't quite a growl that echoed through the cave. I felt the hand grasp my shirt, and pulled away instinctively. There was a rip, and it pulled harder, and I pulled to. It held me back and the seams parted, and I scrambled for the light of the burrow back into the wood between the worlds. It was a short flight, yet in the dark it seemed to last longer than it did.
I never saw the blow, but felt the whip strike me as I clambered out the tunnel. I stood there, bare-breasted in the chill, the pain of the stripe on my back already fading. Nothing followed me out into the half-light of the forest, but perhaps I was more aware of the roots of that tree that had been cut down, for now I could mark the silver bark of it, and saw it twine about some of the other trees, marked with hearts or ribboned-sticks. A strange blessing, I thought, as I retreated closer to worlds I knew.