A man wakes up lost. Around him, trees—tall as mountains—they block out the sky. The man forgets if there ever was a sky.
The wind through the trees is cold, must be February, March, certainly not April yet.
He sets out, walking, running, stumbling, searching. For something to point him in the direction he should be going. Signs, trail markers, moss, another person. Preferably one who is not also lost.
The sun above. The canopy glows green. A nightingale flies among the trees.
The man follows a stream. He thinks that surely flowing water will bring him to people.
The sun above, but now falling, lowering, kneeling before a horizon the man cannot see. His eyes adjust to the coming dark.
The nightingale calls. Last call before full night.
Light rain falls to the ground and onto the lost man. His body trembles every time the wind finds him.
The darkness becomes too much. The man’s eyes simply cannot focus. He cannot make out his own legs nor arms. He walks slowly, reaching out, feeling for a tree. His hands touch bark and he sits on the forest floor, his back against the tree.
The man hears the nightingale flutter about his head. The bird sings lightly. The song soothes him.
Drops of rain cover his cold skin. The man closes his eyes to rest.
When he opens them he sees a fire not far from where he sits. It is a sizable fire, a bonfire. Figures stand and pace around it.
The man wonders how long he has been asleep. And then he does not wonder, and he leaps to his feet, filled with ecstasy to know he is not alone in these woods.
He runs for the bonfire, runs for the other people.
Like the nightingale, the man calls out.
The builders of the fire turn to the voice in the forest.
The man tells them,
as he comes closer.
He walks from the line of trees, into the clearing, the bonfire illuminates all.
The figures wear hoods, cloaks, headdresses. They don masks of beasts. Some are coyotes, some wolves. Some wild, feral dogs. Here a lynx, here a panther. Under this cloak, a manul, beneath this headdress, a mountain lion.
The man stops. He looks, stares at the figures. His eyes working harder in the moving firelight.
The others watch him.
The masks appear to be expertly crafted.
The manul blinks. The wolf’s nose flares.
These are not masks.
The man backs away, reaching for the trees, the trees which hid him. His eyes wide.
It is a black bear in a ragged cloak which takes hold of the man’s shoulders.
He screams as he is lifted, and passed from one beast to another, carried closer to the fire.
Into the nails of the lynx, onto the paws of the wolves, into the long, bony arms of an eastern moose.
The man shouts and pleads and cries to the nightingale flittering in the high trees, the heat of the flames becoming hotter, closer.
The small bird sings, again. This time it does not soothe the lost man. The song is savage and discordant.
He struggles in the arms of a buffalo, but to no avail. The manul speaks, so quietly, the man cannot make out any words.
The buffalo throws the man. He falls into the fire. Ashes fly up, sounding like a wave.
The air is empty around the man. The fire eats the oxygen. It eats the man.
He does not cry out, there is nothing in his lungs to allow it. His nerve-endings burn away, he thinks of his memories. His eyes melt away, he thinks of those he loves and those he has lost. And now the man is lost. To the flames. To the forest. To the nightingale who betrayed him.
The bird calls. The canopy sways. The smoke rises.