They walked the path because they had always walked the path.
This year there were nine children, swallowed in coats of gray, slogging through drifts of soft, powdered snow as the bald trees stood sentinel. They had come a long way, almost halfway up the mountain, yet still the path twisted forward into the distance as far as they could see.
They weren’t permitted to speak, but the same thoughts were stirring in every one of their minds. At least, Michael hoped this was so; he couldn’t possibly be the only one with questions about where they were going, and why they needed to be silent, and why a tear had slipped from the corner of his mother’s eye as she carefully tied his red scarf tightly around his neck. Those were the forbidden questions, questions that were met with frantic gestures to be quiet and fearful glances out the window. Those questions were draped in black.
But Michael thought them all the same, as he walked the path, his footsteps swallowed by the snow. His nose was as red as his scarf, he was sure of it, and his breath came out of his mouth in misty plumes that drifted through the strangely pale, bleached sky and dissolved into nothingness. He knew that a group of children walked the path every year on the day of the first snow, and that this had always been so, but not much more than that. The details were shrouded in secrecy just as surely as the path was shrouded in winter.
Michael stumbled over an unseen root, falling on his hands and knees. The other children didn’t look back; that wasn’t permitted either. Michael watched as blotches of scrubby purple spread over his frozen palms like an ink spill, and fear coiled deep in his chest, though he didn’t know why. He stood, and hurried to catch up with the other children, his feet sinking deep into the drifts of snow, deeper than they should’ve. The usual sounds of the woods were smothered by the profound chill in the air, leaving nothing but an oddly breathless silence, as if the very earth was waiting for something.
The peculiar fear in Michael’s chest wedged tighter into his small ribcage, winding up his spine with an uncomfortable prickle as he slogged onward, legs aching with the cold and exertion. All he wanted was to be back at home, sitting in front of the small fire. He breathed in the cold air, and it seemed to coat his lungs in ice. The path would lead home- for where else could it lead?- and he could curl up with a blanket and forget about all of it: forget about the naked trees that seemed to watch him, forget about the peculiar silence, forget about the dried-up looking sky-
A sharp crack from just behind him made him stop short, and the fear tightened so suddenly he clutched his chest. The other eight children stopped too, stepping from foot to foot uneasily, but they didn’t turn around. Nervous energy filled Michael’s veins, and made him want to run and hide, or fight, or something, anything but keep walking forward like nothing was wrong, but he knew that once you stepped onto the path, there was no stepping off of it. Those were the rules. Those had always been the rules.
A soft click-click-click echoed oddly in the quiet, as the children pressed onwards through the snow. Michael was sure it had come from the forest, but he’d been instructed not to take his eyes off the path. The coiled fear lodged in his chest had clawed its way to his throat, and curious hopelessness descended on him like molasses. His numb legs moved of their own accord, dutifully placing one foot in front of the other and moving forward, up that cursed path for what could have been forever, or perhaps a few minutes.
Here, on the mountain, time had lost its meaning.
Michael kept his eyes forward, not just because of the rules, but because he was starting to fear what he might see if he didn’t. His heart pumped erratically in his little chest, and he was quite sure that one of the trees had moved.
The click-click-click came again, but this time it wasn’t soft, or distant. It sounded as though it had come from just barely off the path, and grated sharply on his ears.
Michael was scared, terrified, in the raw, hiccupy way that only children can be. His breaths came faster, so that the thick plumes of fog coming from his mouth nearly obscured his face entirely, giving him a peculiar blurred appearance that none of the children ahead would ever see, because they were obedient. They kept their gaze forward. The children followed the rules because they trusted their leaders.
Michael trusted his leaders. Surely they wouldn’t lead him into danger. Surely they would keep him safe. The thought comforted him, like a hot coal nestled in his belly. And when the next click-click-click came, he hardly even shuddered.
And when a tall, impossibly thin creature stepped, bow-legged, out of the woods, and picked up the first child in long, thin fingers, he looked around wildly without thinking, because surely this was not supposed to happen. Surely the village leaders would step out of nowhere, smiles on their faces, and declare that this was all a big joke, and yes, they could go home now, and sit in front of the fire wrapped in a blanket for as long as they pleased, sipping the broth made from last year’s spring onions and talk cheerfully without anyone to hush them.
But he did not see the village leaders. All he saw were more of them, eagerly clicking long, spindly fingers together.
And when the creature unhinged its jaw and scooped the little girl in with a charred tongue, gray coat and all, in horrible, unnatural silence, Michael pushed the dawning truth deep into his subconscious, and believed with all his heart that it was a mistake.
And it was a mistake as the second child was seized.
And it was just carelessness as the third was taken.
And it was a tragedy as the fourth met the same fate as the others.
But when the creatures at last turned to him, smiling widely with human teeth, eyes pale pinpricks in their narrow faces, the truth washed over him, as cold and bitter as a bucket of ice water thrown over his head to wake him, the uneasiness he’d felt when his name was called to walk the path multiplied by a thousand. Fractured images flooded his brain at top speed, and he understood his mothers strangled gasp as he was chosen was not of pride. He understood the stories of mysterious intruders long, long ago who reached down chimneys and ate what they pleased, and why those stories were shushed by the village leaders.
Michael understood everything.
But it was too late for him.
The red scarf, carefully tied by his mother that morning, crumpled to the snow as a blinding pain shot through his consciousness, cleaving it in two. And everything faded.
If you didn’t look, really look, you couldn’t tell the creatures from the trees. And so a casual observer walking the path would see nothing strange, nothing out of the ordinary.
They would, perhaps, come upon the red scarf, spilled onto the snow. Pick it up, maybe, and wonder.
Credit : Nora Redding
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