There are trees, certainly.
Great, tall, pale trees like the leg bones of long-dead giants that once walked the earth. Femurs left standing with no body to carry.
And there is water. Miles and miles of it. Some say the water stretches out to the end of everything. Ankle deep at first, knee deep for the most part, but once you pass the point of no return, it’s at least up to your waist. It creeps up your chest to your neck and eventually your chin until you’re treading water.
It gets scary when you don’t know what’s beneath you anymore. The water turns a murky green-grey-brown.
But don’t worry. The yellow light will stay with you until the end.
There is a masked man who carries his lantern through the marshes. When children get lost in the forest, he finds them and guides them home. He is a kind and benevolent spirit. You can trust him, I assure you.
Do you see Polly and Digory there? They’ve been wandering for hours. Staggering and stumbling through the mire, Polly stops.
Let us look for a place to sit and rest, Polly says.
We mustn’t stop for long, Digory warns.
They have been lost indefinitely. The overcast sky conceals the sun, so they measure the passage of time by the moaning of their stomachs and the mounting fatigue in their legs. The earth is damp and cool. A persistent chill nibbles at their skin through their clothes.
Dusk has settled over the land like a gentle reminder. The sky begins to weep. The children huddle close together as if they could fend off the darkness by clinging to one another. The trees are quiet, watchful.
A cool fog, infused with twilight and something like magic nuzzles them like a cat rubbing against their legs. The children shiver together. They clasp hands. When the grey air turns lavender and eventually violet, that’s when the yellow light appears.
Can you see it? Just there, up ahead. Floating and bobbing and dancing like a fairy among the trees. Like a will-o’-the-wisp.
The children see it and stir, as if roused from an enchanted sleep. Perhaps they sense the masked man’s presence, though they can’t see his silhouette behind the light. Not yet.
But soon he will reveal himself. Keep watching.
Fearful and hopeful all at once, they begin to follow the yellow light. After an indeterminable while, the children notice the ground beginning to feel spongey and wet. Each step produces a soft squelsh. Water seeps into their shoes. Squelsh.
As the children draw nearer to the light, they find that the water is up to their ankles now. They are too tired to be frightened. Numbness has climbed into their lungs and nested within them like a parasite, lapping up their vitality.
The dead trees shiver occasionally, although there is never any wind here. The children hear strange noises in the dark, a soft buzzing, like humming bees. Creatures splash in the shallows, unseen. Perhaps close, perhaps not. Prickly fear gnaws at their hearts, but they press on, heedless of the warning signs.
The masked man always walks slowly so the children can keep up. He is thoughtful in this way. You see, he wants to guide them home, but he never approaches them first. He doesn’t want to frighten the children. It is best if they come to him, like moths to a flame.
When they are close enough their eyes widen in awe and wonder. Now they can see the figure carrying the light. The masked man looms before them, a silhouette. He keeps walking, slowly, as if unaware that they have caught up to him. But he knows. He always knows.
He is very tall, Mary thinks to herself. She reaches out for her brother’s hand.
Colin is afraid, but he is trying to act brave for his sister. He decides to talk to the masked man. He approaches the shadowy figure carrying the lantern.
Excuse me, sir? Can you help us? We’ve lost our way, he says.
The trees and the mist swallow his voice. They are always hungry. The masked man stops. The children freeze as if turned to stone, and wait.
The masked man never speaks. It is one of his rules. He has other ways to gain their trust. Watch closely now. See the way he kneels in the shallow water. He is trying to befriend the children. I can never tell how he does it. He offers the little girl his gloved hand, and she accepts innocently, unafraid.
They follow him like little lambs to the slaughter.
The eternal night has leached all color from the world. There are no stars here, and the sky refuses to admit any celestial bodies to rule the night. Only the masked man’s lantern illuminates the dark water. The ripples scatter his ghastly light. The reflections flicker across the children’s faces. Briefly illuminated, they appear dazed. Hypnotized even.
Perhaps that’s how he does it. I have always suspected a magic of sorts.
Well I think it must be the light.
And so it may be, when you are telling the story. But it is my turn now. Be quiet.
The water is getting deeper, it is up to their knees. Only it doesn’t feel cold anymore. The yellow light is keeping them warm. They don’t seem to notice the trees following them, silently, creeping ever closer.
They are famished. It has been far too long.
Here is what you need to know: the forest is a Venus Flytrap, the masked man is an Anglerfish.
Can you hear that? It sounds like thunder.
Someone is drumming.
It must be the others. They’re trying to warn them. Maybe it’s not too late.
Don’t be silly. Just tell the story.
Time is distorted in this place. It neither creeps nor crawls, but rushes as a flood or an avalanche, all at once until it stops.
Everything is becoming blurry. The edges are smeared. The children stumble onward, following the yellow light. Either the masked man has quickened his pace or the children are slowed down by the water. It is thickening like oatmeal, like sludge. They feel as though they are sinking. The water has risen up to their waists.
The masked man is unaffected. He glides unhindered, ghostlike. The children wonder if they should turn back, but which way is back? The water keeps getting deeper, and the light keeps getting dimmer.
I wish mother was here, Jill cries.
Don’t cry. We will be alright, Jack says.
Oh, if only they knew. It won’t be long now.
Tiny fish appear in the murky water. They glow in the dark, pale blue and green, flashing silver and gold. The children are delighted, distracted from their fears. This is my favorite part. The fish swirl around their legs, mesmerizing and kaleidoscopic. Scales glittering like gems or starlight.
Unnoticed, the trees are forming a circle around the children and the masked man. They scuttle across the muddy floor on their tentacle-roots, careful not to disturb the stillness of the water. They are working up to a quiet frenzy, anxious to feed.
One by one, the fish blink out. They vanish the way fireflies fade into twilight. Plunged into gloom again, the children realize they have lingered too long. The masked man is gone. They are alone.
But don’t be anxious. The yellow light has not abandoned them. I told you it would stay until the end.
The light glimmers up at them from underwater, growing brighter and brighter with each breath, each heartbeat. It is almost blinding.
I imagine they hear their mother’s voice now. Do you think?
Yes, perhaps they do. Someone who loves them. Calling them home.
They look peaceful, and happy.
The children are falling asleep, sinking into the yellow light. The soft water cradles them with infinite arms, and the trees hum a forgotten lullaby in a foreign tongue.
And they have good dreams?
Yes, they have the sweetest, most beautiful dreams.
Rachel Pittman graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Writing from Georgia Southern University. This fall, she will be joining the MFA program at McNeese State University. She has a CNF flash piece published in Gravel and a short story published in Helix.
Artwork: Brooke Shaden, The Tunnel