It was real night, that night. Not from above, but from everywhere, the stars shone. Our campfire had gone ember dark hours ago. In the Milky Way's bright light we brewed coffee on Mark's camping stove. Snowy peaks -- the Front Range -- rose high and far above us.
For no reason at all, I began to feel afraid.
No reason at all, really. Colorado is a safe, wealthy state. It was early autumn, a bit chilly perhaps; but at least a month away from the big snows that would cover this part of the world in silence. Susan and I had arrived in Denver more than a week ago, visiting my friend Mark who had served with me in Vietnam.
My friend smiled in the starlight. "Three miles from here . . ."
"The Crystal Cascades!" my wife interrupted.
Mark smiled again. Not the least annoyed. "Yes, the Crystals." He rose from the ground. Walked around the edges of our camp. The shadows the starlight made of him seemed not at all human. I wondered how long Mark had walked these mountains alone. Twenty years?
I got up and poked the embers.
Mark's left hand touched the ground, went through the thin layer of fallen leaf. Came back out with a handful of earth.
"On nights like this . . ."
"On nights like this, the dead animals of the forest come out of this earth. Come out of the ground thirsty. If we go to the Crystal Cascades now, we will see them there. Drinking."
Susan laughed. I didn't. Mark took something out of his pocket. A revolver. My wife stopped laughing.
"We will walk the trail tonight. As I have done before. You might hear them, walking and trotting and leaping all around you. Going to the Cascades to drink. You might even see them as they hurry along. Going to the Cascades to drink."
I moved just a bit to his right. Mark is a big man, but I am bigger. The revolver tracked me, his gun hand as steady as ever.
"Why the Crystal Cascades?" I asked him. This area was rich with streams. He knew that. How many cold nights had he stayed out here alone? "I mean, why would animals . . . risen from the dead . . . go there in particular."
Something very disturbing happened then, or perhaps I imagined it. Mark raised his left hand in a very odd gesture. But the stars made two hands of his shadow. And his gun hand still covered me.
His left hand came down again, and so did the shadows. His voice was calm. "It comes down on starry nights, when the moon hides in fear of Its coming. The forest dead are its children. After a month in the earth, they thirst. They thirst." He waved the gun at us both. "You shall see."
The trail was no problem, even in the moonless dark. Every second that went by I thought of escape. From her glances, I knew my wife did also. Did Mark mean to shoot us when we arrived? To leave our corpses face down in the Cascades?
About a quarter mile from our camp, we heard the sounds of movement in the woods. My wife called out my name. The sounds stopped. Started again. What did they matter? Night animals about their errands. We were with a madman.
Yet . . . the sounds were many, all hurrying forward in the same direction as us.
Not using the trail because humans were on the trail?
Not using the trail because the living used the trail?
I halted. My wife stepped on my heels. The sounds of something big, moving past us in the right. The night too black, the trees too thick to see what kind of animal it was. We stood there, Mark not objecting, till the sounds it made were gone.
We were, I think, half way to the Cascades, when the dead thing walked out of the forest night and onto the trail, just a bit ahead of us. It was, or had once been, a wolf, or perhaps a large dog. Mostly, it was in one piece. Perhaps starvation or sickness had claimed it. It looked at us, and its eyes were just empty starlight, in a face or muzzle long gone. That was how I knew it was dead. Not the skeletal, rotting decay, but the awful kinship I felt from its starlight eyes. Cold they were, light shining from a dreadful, lightless place. Yet there was a palpable sadness like black mist in them, visible in the last moment its skull turned to look back at us. Perhaps it had been a lost dog, after all.
It took off down the trail, gradually becoming starlight and night again.
My wife fell to the earth, crying.
I begged Mark to let her stay. He nodded. The two of us moved forward. Following the sounds all about us to the Crystal Cascades. I saw many more dead things now. Perhaps they no longer feared us. Perhaps they were too thirsty. Birds with broken wings. Rabbits pulling the remnants of snares. Silvery in the vast night, rattlesnakes with crushed heads slithered past. I screamed as something big, bigger than any bear, pushed past me in its hurry to drink.
Up ahead now, the crystal clear sound of running water. Something dressed in starlight howled.
Gleaming, the Cascades' waters ran over and around granite outcrops and corners and rocks. All around and inside it, in its shallows, in its depths, dead animals drank. Some unseen, a few as majestic as in life. There were many more that were just moving pieces of bone.
I fell to my knees, in tears. I was terrified, but not just of them. Something sat inside the wind and the trees. Above the dead, above me. Watching the forest dead. Giving them water to drink and life with which to drink it.
I threw myself on the ground in worship and fear. The sun, and human madness, might have driven It away. But on starry nights always It returns. The Old God. The God of Outer Space. Giving life and water to the dead.
The wind in the trees grew louder. I kissed the ground below the One True God.
There was a gunshot behind me.
I am thirsty now, but in another month I shall drink.
Created: December 26, 2006