They said the Solstice festival was the safest to go to. The most normal. Virtually the whole town disappears into The Commune in the Woods during the Summer Solstice. For a week, the roads are empty and the smaller businesses are closed, and you can tell who doesn’t really live here, because they’re left wandering the streets, wondering where the hell everyone has gone.
I’ve never gone before; I stay outside, with the outsiders. The Commune in the Woods is a place where people think they mean well. They don’t. I’ve gone there for softer occasions - to help a friend remove a blighted Ash tree, or to camp for a single night after a fire with just a small group of people whom I thought I was comfortable with. But every time I go, something is wrong. And every time I leave, something wrong comes back with me. The first time it stayed for only a day or two - dreams of bugs and people with black eyes chanting words that bring a sentient darkness to life. But this last time - and I was only there for a few hours, just to babysit a shareowner’s child - this last time something came back and stayed.
It’s been three weeks since I’ve slept through the night, and about four hours since the last time I looked behind me and saw it following me still. A boney spirit with a mean, obscured face, dripping wetland mud off its claws and its hooves, leaving muddy grey tracks in its wake. It hasn’t done anything yet; it’s always just here. But it makes me feel cold and hydric and it also makes me feel like my medications have stopped working altogether. But this isn’t one of my hauntings - this one is from The Commune. I know I’m going to have to go back so I can get it away from me and to its home where it belongs. What I don’t know is how I’ll get back home where I belong without another dark thing following me. Will it be worse? Will it stay longer?
I just keep thinking of that saying, “The devil you know…”
On the drive out to Solstice, the road seems to have created even more switchbacks than before. Each time I drive the route, it seems different. And the trees lining the narrow, unkempt asphalt road don’t make any sense. Sometimes they are looming; sometimes they are bent away, like a person shielding their eyes from a bright light or a terrible scene of blood and bones. Sometimes they aren’t the right color for the season that it is. This time they seemed blueish, even the pines, and the last of the Ashes, the ones that would soon fall, reflected a dirty orange color that just looked like illness. The blight was more than the borers; the blight was The Woods.
As I turn into the drive - an entry you can almost miss no matter how many times you’ve pulled your car through it - the creeping vines hanging from the Cottonwoods look less like vines and more like nooses. But I tell myself to calm the fuck down while the hoofed thing in my back seat looks around excitedly as it realizes it’s home. For a moment, I wonder if leaving was as much a punishment for it as it was for me.
Driving down the unpaved road, I am greeted at every turn by friends I know and friendly people I don’t. Some wear animal tails and go by different names. Some wear antlers and contacts that make their eyes a really disturbing color of yellow, with triangular pupils. Some wear nothing at all. I can recognize my friends; even though they’re in sarongs and flip flops, they’re still them. They don’t have alter egos. And this is what always lulls me into the false sense of safety - the idea that if I stay with them, it really will be a fun time and I really will understand what it is about this place that people find so magical…. and not in the dark way that I do. And this is how it always starts.
After I park and set my tent up on the hill overlooking the main ceremonial space, The Circle, I try to tell myself it’ll be okay. Actually, I neurotically repeat over and over, under my breath and in my head, that it’ll be okay. For like 45 minutes I do this as I set up camp. And then I head down to The Circle. At any of the festivals, I’ve been told, The Circle is where everyone comes together each night - to drink, to dance, to have a tab of acid laid on their tongues - to lose themselves around a fire too big to keep itself fed with only oxygen. Every time the drums start up it seems like my heartbeat is not my own anymore.
You need to calm yourself the actual fuck down.
So I take a swig of Jack and another one of absinthe and I go to the fire hoping for the best. The dancing is fun, and playing around with my friends is something cathartic and free that I always need but rarely find. The one who is building his house here, somewhere on The Commune in the Woods, he grabs my hands and kisses my cheeks and tells me he’s glad I finally came to a festival. And then he pours something else in my mouth that tastes at once like weed and Meade and rubbing alcohol. For a few minutes, his smile and the smile of those around me brings a feeling of warmth and community to my new drum-heartbeat. But then everyone’s teeth become too sharp and too long. Their faces become colors that are not human skin and what was ecstatic joy and release becomes something else that makes me want to throw up.
And here’s where things start to fall apart.
I tell my friends I have to pee. I walk out of The Circle and down the North path, because it’s dark and because it’s the path I am most familiar with. I really do have to pee, so I squat just off the edge of the trail. Looking at the trail itself, there are footprints and sandal prints, but there are also cloven hoof prints and something that looks like bird tracks - but birds that large don’t exist. My head is at once cloudy and rainbow, and I am at once dizzy and tunneled. I can’t go back to The Circle - I can’t handle the faces. So I walk farther down the North path. And what was very straightforward and familiar in the daytime now seems like the roads that lead here. Winding. Changing. I can see the light from the fire at The Circle and the string lights up by The Meeting House. I can hear people chanting down at The Druid Circle. But I can’t get to any of them. When I get to a crossroads, suddenly the signs say Purple and Ivy. They both point to my right, but there are 5 paths to choose from, all of which do not lead to the right. Was I ever on the North path at all?
I start to become worried when I come upon a small, sunken clearing where someone (something?) has built a monumental nest of twisted, woody vines, framed by an arched entrance. I’ve seen this place before, I’ve met the local craftsman who made it. He’s pagan. Like everyone here. But I did not attend The Untying Ceremony, because I know that no matter what good intentions these people think they have, once something with that much energy is given its freedom, it becomes something crooked and dark. It is no longer beautiful. And neither is this. I look towards the middle and see eyes that are too large to be anything but a spirit who decided to make its home here. So I run farther down whatever path it is I’m on. I can’t hear or see the fire at The Circle anymore, and I can’t see any of the hillside camps of those that choose to live here seasonally. Something is wrong. So I turn around, to run back toward the clearing I know - even if everyone’s faces are horrifying. But I immediately bump straight into the bony hoofed thing that has been my companion for the better part of the last month. Maybe it’s the drugs, maybe it’s that he’s home now. But he isn’t dripping wet mud and he isn’t obscured. His face is kind and… it’s not human but it’s not goat. And he smiles and apologizes for following me, but says I look lost.
I scream, on the inside or the outside. And I turn back and continue to run down the path that didn’t exist when the sun was out, towards places in The Woods that I don’t know. I hear him yelling at me to wait, that there is only evil down there, but I don’t believe him, my eyes or my ears, so I don’t stop. I can hear him following me. Why? I feel him grab my right elbow with his little claws and pull me to a stop. He spins me around to face him and he is alarmed - he’s scared.
“We need to go back. You don’t get it. If we wait much longer even I won’t be able to figure out what the paths have done tonight. Please, let me help you.”
I try to speak, but I can’t. I’m confused. All I manage is-
“Wait - are you from here?”
And then I learn something worse than all the things I had learned here so far.
“I was never from here. I was called here over a hundred years ago by the people at The Greek Shrine, and I could never figure out how to get back home. And-”
He stops speaking abruptly and looks past me at something, an absolutely horrified look on his face. Then, without saying anything, he grabs my hand and pulls me back the way we came. And now I am running through The Woods again, faded as hell and still unsure if this little hoofed creature is friend or foe. But I can feel his fear in the way he’s gripping my hand and I can hear something heavy following us - and it smells of white sulfur and death. And even though we’re running back down the “same” path, we never pass the giant nest again. We never see the crossroads with the signs that name the paths. We never hear the sounds of people or the lights from the places they’re gathered. All there is are whispers and our heavy breathing and our hurried footsteps. And the thing following us. Not even birds. Not even coyotes. The little hoofed creature looks over his shoulder every so often to see if whatever is chasing us is still there, but I don’t; I can smell it and hear it. I don’t want to know what it looks like - I don’t want to give it the chance to turn me to mud or stone.
Why is every single thing in this place so fucked up?
It doesn’t matter how long or how fast we run - the thing behind us never stops. Without looking back, the hoofed thing that’s trying to save me pants-
“I’m sorry. I should have come sooner. I should have told you not to come back here. We aren’t getting out. No one gets out.”
And just as he says that, I feel the thing that is chasing us disperse into the trees like smoke, and at nearly the same moment, branches envelope me from every side and raise me off the ground. The last thing I see is the little hoofed creature’s face- looking at once afraid and sad.
I am surprised when I wake up on the ground, just a stone’s throw away from my tent but inside the trees. It is daylight but it isn’t. And looking at my tent, it seems as if it’s been there for years; it’s half collapsed, absolutely tattered, and dry-rotting from too much exposure to sun and water. I hear a small sigh and look behind me to see the hoofed creature sat on a stump, head hung in his little claws, defeated. I stand up, but it doesn’t make sense - I’m still close to the ground. Looking down, my hands aren’t hands; they’re paws. I look at him, mouth agape. He lifts his head and looks at me -
“I’m sorry. It’s too late.”
On four legs I run to the nearest puddle and look down. My face is not human but not fully canine. I am covered in dark yellow and grey fur. My front legs are coyote. My back legs are badger, and I have this long lizard tail with yellow scales that look like metal. I scream but all that comes out is a howl. And then I smell sulfur.
The trees are laughing.