Alien as it looked, this was a human being. Its nose was gone. I had the impression the nose had slid from its face. Its lips had been seared away; what was left was ghastly. With teeth, with more than a gash for a mouth, the creature would be a grinning skeleton.
I scanned its ravaged body. Where its genitals should have been was only scarred flesh. Had it been a man or a woman? I couldn’t tell.
My breath came in shallow gasps. I took another step back. The creature reached out to me with one gnarled hand. Its fingers had fused together, producing three barely functional digits. A high-pitched, scream escaped its mouth. It was as if every cell in that wretched creature’s body had been filtered into this one, terrifying exultation. I turned to run, which caused the creature’s scream to rise another octave. I must have looked like some no-name actor in a horror film, all lead feet when the killer jumps out from behind a tree. My next step found, not soggy earth, but empty air.
My momentum carried me forward and down. I hit hard, screaming. In that moment, my body locked with fear. The monster was behind me and I had tripped; it would be on top of me any moment. I was certain I was going to die.
I started coughing, my savaged throat making sounds like the product of a lifetime of smoking. The ground beneath my hands was solid, but it wasn’t stone or compact earth. Instead I felt soft roots, almost like vines, half under the ground. I noticed the lantern perhaps six feet away. I had dropped it in the fall.
The hatchet was still clutched in my other hand, knuckles white from the strain. I thought about releasing the tool but my hand ignored the suggestion. I turned over and crawled to the lantern, my pajama pants sticking on some kind of residue covering the limbs beneath me. Once the lantern was back in my grasp, I raised up to my knees.
My voice was a sharp gargle. I tried to say hello, tried to greet the creature. There was no response from the darkness around me. Then came an echo, a reverberation of my own voice, amplified as if a thousand clones of me had answered. I dropped the lantern and my weapon, covering my ears.
When the echo subsided, I picked up the lantern again. As I stared into the darkness, the first thing I thought of was Gipetto. All the never-ending, timeless surrounding him in the belly of that whale must have been maddening. My stomach tightened sharply. There was a rumble that I felt in my knees. It came from deep beneath me, as if the planet itself had taken notice of tiny me. I looked up quickly, but the hole I had fallen through was gone. Warmth travelled down my legs.
It took me a few moments to realize that something had grabbed my ankle. I became aware of a searing sensation. The smell of burnt hair filled my nostrils, followed by the sickly-sweet odor of scalded flesh. I grabbed the hatchet and struck blindly at whatever was gripping me. Only after I felt release did I bother to look. A severed tentacle, similar in color and shape to the vines on which I’d landed earlier, quivered on the ground. I heard a faint screeching from under the Earth. Rising awkwardly to my feet, I raised the hatchet, not sure who or what I was trying to menace. The harsh light of the lantern revealed nothing.
My feet were snatched out from under me, pulling me onto my back. It happened fast, like the cracking of a whip. My breath was forced from my lungs. Two new tentacles gripped me. Sitting up, I hacked at them frantically, cutting into my own ankles in the process.
It worked. Free again, I scrambled to stand. As I reached my full height, tentacles shot out of the ground, grabbing the hatchet and lantern and casting them aside. More limbs, dripping a clear ichor, wrapped around my legs and brought me down again, this time face first. Blood filled my mouth.
The tentacles were green and the color of rust, uprooted from the ground. Their translucent refracted the lantern’s light into colors I’d never seen.
My clothing was ripped away with such force that I knew deep bruises would later form. Where the tentacles slid across my body, the ichor oozed and covered my flesh. The smell of burning skin overwhelmed me. The burning sap removed hair wherever it touched,–as easily as swift winds move loose dirt. Soon I was entombed in a mass of writhing tentacles, each of them taking a turn at my flesh.
They violated my body but this was not a rape. They were probing, learning. Don’t ask how I understood this, beneath the screams, beneath the unrelenting pain, beneath the revulsion. But I did. I knew that there was intelligence directing the tentacles. Nothing was random.
My genitals were removed with one copious slather of ichor. My mouth and anus were probed deeply, the saliva-like acid dissolving my tongue and teeth. I imagine whatever drove the tentacles saw me as little more than a toy. Sex was not even a consideration. Only my right hand was spared, for reasons that still escape me. But another sensation overtook me. It was that sensation that has led me to you, Doctor.
I’ve discovered, since that night, that we humans have an internal sense of time. We can feel deep in our guts that we’re moving inexorably forward, that there is no stopping the relentless forced march. In that pit, buried under a mountain of dirt and horrors, I lost that sense of time. Science fiction always depicts suspended animation this way: dreaming without sleeping. I understood in that moment that the creature tormenting me had known this universe in many forms. It was primordial, a being for whom the word “old” is both apropos and utterly meaningless.
I became unmoored from time. For a brief flash, I felt heat, unbearable, roiling heat, pulled from my body, consumed by the mind in the darkness behind those damned tentacles.
My eyes opened to water splashing on them. Rain fell from a black sky with vigor. While I could feel both my eyelids were open, I was blind on one side. The slick rain on my scalded flesh was like acid, igniting my tortured nerves.
I rolled off my back but the pain from the droplets grew worse. Great heaving spasms wracked my abdomen as I vomited thick, syrupy ichor into a mud puddle. I rolled away from the puddle only to land on a patch of broken branches. My nerves screamed at me. I rolled onto my stomach, then rose to crawl. My movements were slow, as if I carried the weight of the storm on my back.
Crawling when I must, walking awkwardly when I could, I made my way through the silent trees. My sense of time was gone, but I was sure my home was ahead, waiting for me.
It was the barking that caught my attention. My hearing had been spared during my degradation. I crawled through the mud like a wounded animal, making for that sound. The edge of the woods was within sight as the dog’s throaty protests became louder. Using a tree for support, I rose to my knees. The raindrops felt like tiny knives against my skull. Despite my nakedness, despite being soaked and exposed to the chill wind, I had not shivered once.
The sight before me froze me in place.
Sybil was barking at me.
For the first time that night, I felt elation. I was home. I couldn’t tell if tears or raindrops were falling down my face. I didn’t care. I struggled to reach a standing position, staring at the muddy ground while I struggled. When I looked up again, I saw my face. It was my face as it had been, unblemished, unharmed. A head full of hair. Two amber eyes.
When I realized what had happened, a great, gurgling bellow escaped my ravaged throat. I screamed I ran I fell down I got up I screamed I ran I fell down I got up I screamed ran fell got up screamed ran fell got up…
The canopied circle welcomed me back, silent and cold. I could endure no more. So I waited. I knew I’d be arriving soon. I knew I would fall. My head turned when my shadow fell before me.
I could not utter a word.
I watched myself enter the ground. I heard myself scream. The tentacles found me, deep below. Again.
I’ve been told I was discovered the next day by neighbors out on a morning jaunt in the woods. The circle was complete. There was no hole in the ground. There was only my broken, damaged body. Sybil recognized me, but she could sense something foul on me, in me. Now I’m here. I write this for you, Doctor, with my unblemished right hand. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to recount my ordeal. But time is growing short.
As you well know, these moments of lucidity are few. Please take this copy to sit with the other copies I’ve written for doctors like you. Doctors who wish to hear my story, but who will file it away as the delusional ramblings of a mad man. Soon enough, my clarity will fade. Then the screams will come. The medication will follow. Then the sleeping without dreaming.