|WHEN CALLS THE FOREST by Carlton Herzog|
The Sounding of the Call
Jake woke to an ancient song surging through him. Eerie and weird, it called him to the forest. He left the house. He made his way to the edge of the woods. Intoxicated by the smell of the black soil and tall grass, he ran over the unpacked earth beneath heaven’s glittering canopy. He tore off his clothes to make room for his expanding body.
His jaws became full. He had fangs, long and white, that hung heavy from His pink gums and glistened in the moonlight, thirsty for blood and death and all things wild.
He remembered running with the pack through the primeval forest and killing meat as they ran it down. He remembered that beautiful moment when he ripped open the buck’s face from eye to jaw and washed his snout to the eyes in blood. The old life quickened in him now, his hair bristling, his mouth foaming, his red eyes burning like stars.
Ahead he saw the uniformed man from Development Corporation, flashlight in hand. The man turned and shone the light on him, dropped it and ran. The man could not outrun him. No man could once those ancient cadences sounded, and his four massive furry legs matched their stroke.
He sprang upon the man. He ripped open his throat until the wound spouted a fountain of blood. The warm taste of red goaded him to sink his fangs deeper until he hit bone. Now the man was nothing more than squirming meat. A moment later, reduced to a limp and lifeless body hung trophy-like from his massive jaws.
What was once Jake relished the taste of the man’s flesh, slathered as it was in blood and spit. Once the man’s body had been chewed and lay inside Jake’s full belly, he went to sleep. The forest’s primeval sacrament had been completed.
Naked, Jake woke covered in blood and mud. The man’s bones and shredded clothes lay scattered around him.
He couldn’t remember how he got there or why he was lying naked next to a bloody bone pile. But he knew that he needed to leave.
He made his way to the edge of the forest. He needed to get back to his house without being seen, bloody and naked. He moved cat-like from cover to cover until he got to his house. Everybody was still sleeping.
He made his way up the gravel driveway marked by poplar trees. His two dogs, Bootsy, the Japanese Pug, and Pepe, the Mexican hairless, came to greet him. They got with ten feet, whined and turned tail and ran back toward the house.
Pampered creatures that exist under the dominion of and the pleasure of man. Beneficiaries of selective breeding that rarely put nose to ground or paw outside the door. Benign parasites that are cruel caricatures of their wild ancestors.
The Wood of the Upside Down
Jake showered and put on fresh clothes. As he did, he concocted a story about the human remains he could feed the police. He jumped on his bike and peddled to the police station. The desk officer sent him to Detective Murphy who had just started his shift.
Jake said, “I like to go for walks in the woods. This morning I came across a pile of bloody bones and ripped clothes. It looked like some animal had eaten someone.”
Detective Murphy said, “Take me there.”
As the two of them drove to the forest’s edge, Detective Murphy gave Jake a brief history lesson:
Those woods are no dam good. After everything that’s happened there, I don’t understand why somebody would go poking around there. In your case, I can see it, since you and your family just moved here.”
Jake asked, “How so?”
Detective Murphy said, “For, one thing, we’ve had any number of people go into the forest and never come out. They just disappear from the face of the earth, as if the forest swallowed them whole.
Then there’s all the nutty behaviour. Ordinary folk, sane and sober as a judge, go crazy in there. Three years ago, a group of twelve boys went in with their bows and arrows, found a clearing and spent the day shooting arrows straight up in the air. Four made it out alive, arrows sticking out of them every which way from their head and shoulders. Mind you, we never found the other eight. We only know what happened from what the survivors told us. They claimed that “a voice told us to do it.”
Before that, a group of boy scouts held a camp-fire conference in those woods. They hanged their troupe leader. They said the music told them to do it.
There’s plenty of deer and pheasant in those woods. So, when hunting season comes, there’s plenty of folks want to bag their quota. Unfortunately, there’s been a dozen hunting accidents over the past twelve years. All fatal and all involving shot gun blasts to the head.
Then there’s all the drownings. The Raritan River runs along the southern edge of the forest. We’ve fished bodies out of there over the years. It made no sense, since they were all adults who could swim.
“I tried posting signs to warn people away. The mayor said the signs were bad for tourism, since the woods are a local attraction of sorts. So yeah, those woods are cursed. Something in there wants folks to stay away. Or it wants them to come in so it can kill them. Or maybe it’s both. I’m not superstitious, but there’s something wrong with the place.”
When they got to the forest, Murphy parked the car and they hiked into the woods. They reached the spot where Jake had awoken. But there was no sign of any bloody bones or torn clothes.
Jake said, “This is where I found it.”
Murphy said, “Well, there’s nothing here. No bones, no blood, not footprints. So either you imagined the whole thing or the ground opened up and swallowed everything whole. But even then, there’s no sign the ground has been disturbed in anyway. So, I’m inclined to think you’re cuckoo.”
Jake said, “I’m sure this is the place.”
Murphy scribbled something in his notepad and handed the paper to Jake: “Consider this a referral. Here’s the number of our town shrink. Go see her. Tell her I sent you and to mail me the bill. I’m sure she can help clarify the mystery for you.”
Jake took it reluctantly. He said, “I don’t want my parents knowing about this.”
Murphy said, “I won’t say a word as long as you go see Dr. Bast. Agreed?”
Jake said, “Agreed. I’ll call her today.”
The two of them rode back to the precinct headquarters. Along the way, Jake called and set up an appointment to be seen the next day. Once at the station, Murphy and Jake parted company. He pedalled home and once there acted as if he had a perfectly normal day—free of human remains, sceptical detectives, and psychiatrists.
Civilization and Its Discontents
The next day he visited the offices of Bast and Sekhmet, professional counsellors. The receptionist wore a blood red dress and had the blackest hair and palest skin Jake had ever seen. And those ruby red lips inspired a thousand vile suggestions inside his head.
She gave him a sexually charged come hither look: “Doctor Bast will see you now.” He promptly ejaculated at her words.
Mortified and walking cockeyed with his hand over his crotch, Jake entered Dr. Bast’s office. He immediately recognized most of the pictorial art and statuary. And well he should, since both his parents taught ancient history.
Dr. Bast spoke first in a soothing Middle Eastern accent: “So what brings you here today Jake?”
Jake proceeded to tell her about his wolf dream, waking up naked in the forest, his excursion with Detective Murphy, and the weird occurrences associated with the forest.
Dr. Bast asked, “Have you ever read The Call of the Wild or White Fang by Jack London?
Jake answered, “I read them both a few years ago. What does that have to do with any of this?”
Dr. Bast said, “They address the conflict between the quest for personal freedom and society’s expectations. The wolf has always been a symbol of the instinctive personal freedom society wants to repress. It’s possible your imagination is venting your discontent with a civilized existence. Very often, the human imagination creates an alternate reality that can seem very real. It can carry us to places beyond the stars and beneath the earth.”
Jake asked, “Are you saying I imagined the whole thing?”
Dr. Bast said, “I cannot say for sure. Perhaps, there is a great reservoir of truth that pools around us unseen, and every now and then it leaks into the mind of exceptional individuals. Or, perhaps, you have succumbed to the influence of the pervasive superstition that surrounds the forest. For example, you told me that the detective and others believe that the forest is jinxed. Perhaps, their sentiments rubbed off on you. Do you have a history of sleepwalking?”
Jake said, “No. Never. And I’m new to town, so the things the detective said about the forest were all news to me.”
At that moment Dr. Sekhmet, her colleague, entered and said, “The German philosopher Gustav Fechner believed that the Earth is sentient, and the projection of its soul can create visions—our creatures of legend if you will. Maybe the earth found you psychically sensitive and wanted to communicate with you. Perhaps, it was telling you it wants to keep that forest pristine by killing off interlopers and then swallowing them up.”
Jake said, “That’s sounds even more ridiculous than what Dr. Bast said a moment ago.”
Dr. Bast said, “Well, if everything happened as you said it did, and your claim to sanity is valid, then my animistic, psychophysical explanation is as good as any. I suggest that you go back into the woods and revisit the spot in question by yourself. Tonight, in fact. It will be a full moon, so you’ll have plenty of light to find your way.”
Jake asked, “At night?”
Dr. Bast said, “The spookier the better. After all, that’s when the missing man was supposedly killed, was it not? So, if there’s anything to see, it will be after the sun has gone down. Now, I have other patients waiting. I’ll bill the Police for your session as you requested.
The Strain of the Primitive
Jake was not thrilled about returning to the forest, especially in the dark. But he was curious, if only to resolve the issue of his sanity. Why had he been sprawled naked on the ground covered in somebody else’s blood?
And there was that tug or push—he couldn’t tell which—compelling him to return to the forest. It wasn’t a thought or an abstract idea, but rather a visceral impulse that seemed to control him, the way a puppeteer pulls the strings on a marionette. Somebody or something was driving the bus, and the only thing he knew for sure was that he was a passenger.
His parents had gone out for the evening and wouldn’t be back until early next morning. So, there was no need for secrecy.
When the moon rose, he grabbed a jacket, flashlight and baseball bat, and headed for the woods.
The woods were alive with activity: squirrels chattering, birds singing, mysterious movements in the woods around him. There was an air of animal electricity and a sense of expectation. He tramped along through the woods until he came to the spot where he had awoken. The ground was undisturbed.
He stood there listening for any sound that might offer clues to the mystery. But nothing happened. Finally, he turned and headed home.
But a moment later, he felt a strong wind push him back. And then for want of a better word, a kind of gravity like the kind he felt at the amusement park inside the centrifuge ride. It tugged him deeper into the forest. As it did, he could hear music, a flute of some sort, piping in the distance. It became a beacon of sound that he followed willingly.
He wasn’t afraid. Somehow, he knew that this was where he was supposed to be, and this is what he should be doing. Deeper and deeper he strode, the music getting louder.
Just ahead he could see light through the trees and a moment later, voices. Not talking but chanting some unintelligible words.
He came to a large circular clearing, too perfect to have been natural. Around it, people dressed in white robes held hands.
In the centre, there was a great fire. It was surrounded by twelve men bound to a timber pole. There was a naked young girl standing next to each. They were chanting, “To the stars; to the stars; to the starry sabbath.” He stood in the shadows and watched as they began to dance around the fire. A frenzied chaotic dance, an insane dance, an animal dance.
One moment they were human, the next girls with the legs of deer and lion and goat. And tails.
Their heads transformed as well, alternating between animal and human. Their chants were replaced by growls and purrs and barks.
A moment later, in an act that defied belief, each girl tore off the head of a bound man. The men’s blood fed the earth, even as the girls cavorted with the heads, throwing them into the air and catching them.
Thereafter, there was bedlam as the crowd cheered and the ghoulish decapitators danced. They stopped every now and then to lick the spraying blood and smear it on their naked bodies. The frenzied chaos of that animal dance did not restrict itself to the earth.
It moved into the air as the circle of bloody composite creatures, still clutching the heads, levitated in a rotating circle around the fire. Higher and they went until they were above the flames. They split from the circle into a freewheeling gaggle of cackling women, eminently pleased at their new-found powers of flight and metamorphosis. They shot every which way above the encircled throng below that cheering and chanted and exhorted them to fly higher and higher.
Jake was mesmerized, so much so that he did not see that Doctors Bast and Sekhmet had walked up to him. They were dressed in the same ceremonial attire as the congregation. Nor did he see his parents behind them.
Dr. Bast said, “Welcome to the fold Jake. I trust you find our little spectacle sufficiently entertaining, if not awe-inspiring?”
Jake didn’t know what to say, so great was his shock.
His mother said, “This is why we took the university appointment here. So, we could be part of this coven and participate in its glorious purpose of stopping human encroachment on this sacred ground.”
Jake just stared at them in disbelief.
His father said, “You were born to be the candle for this purpose. But we couldn’t light you until your wick was prepared.”
Jake stammered, “I don’t understand.”
His mother said,
Your outer body is shaped along human lines. But your inner one is a fragment of the Earth’s Soul. We had spent the better part of a year trying various incantations to coax it out. Nothing worked.
So, we performed a spiritual C-Section to facilitate the birth. We lured a surveyor into the woods at night. He was already in town to map out a development plan for the forest. We created a targeting spell that overcame whatever was blocking your metamorphosis and coerced you into hunting him down. Once you had tasted blood you were physically and spiritually ready to operate as one of the forest’s new guardians. The only thing remaining was to bring you up to speed, to prime the old cognitive pump so to speak.
As she was talking, Jake spotted Detective Murphy walking over to him. Jake rolled his eyes and said, “You’re part of this?”
Murphy laughed, “I’ve been at this for over a thousand years. Like I always say, once a pagan always a pagan.”
Dr. Bast said, “When man got smart, he wallowed in self-abstraction, and in the process lost himself. We pagans loath the fever and torment of the intellect. It’s like having a harness around our neck with bit and bridle in soulless hands.
Jake asked, “So what now?”
His mother said, “Our oracles will keep tabs on who goes into the forest. You and the other guardians—the ones flying above us—will make sure they don’t come out. Like she always does, Gaia will swallow the bodies and use them as fertilizer. Now more than ever we need to step up our game. Economic development and the prospective of huge profits tend to make modern man less fearful. “
As Jake listened, he could see the congregants undergo their own transformations. Men became centaurs, half man, half horse; others became satyrs, half man half goat; women became nymphs and fauns.
The ground around them bubbled and roiled as if it were a liquid, a living syrup of loam and leaf and tree. The trees pulled themselves from the ground and began walking on their roots. The animals of the forest, everything from badgers to birds, mingled with the transformants in a dithyrambic romp celebrating Nature in all its varied glory.
Jake felt the strain of the primitive as well, calling to him from the wild. And as he did, the feral Jake inside him awoke. He grew and expanded growing fur and fangs and claws along the way. This newly born guardian for and of the earth towered over the rest as his sisters flew high above him in support. Nature herself flowed through them in a great powerful tide of ferocity and strength, more than a match for any that would dare defile the forest and ignore its call.
The ritual culminated in the emergence of a beautiful, large breasted woman rising from the earth. In his wolf body, his real body, Jake, his libido rising volcanically inside him, went over to her. They embraced. Then the two of them sank into the earth as the celebration above reached its climax.