FROM THE GROUND, THE SOULS BURNT CLEAN

by Kurt Fawver

Medlin could already see the haunted field through the dense pine needle starbursts that rose to the crown of the universe. The Jeep in which he rode rolled to a stop and the man in the driver’s seat, Turner, the foreman in the northeast corridor of Medlin’s company’s logging project, pointed to the virgin forests ahead.

“It’s at the end of the trail. We have to walk from here. Road doesn’t go any further.”

The Jeep idled and the men waited for courage to find them amidst the thick Washingtonian woodland. As they waited, uncertain of their next actions, the radio streamed tragedy from another side of the world. In the palliative, monotone cadence of a master undertaker, a reporter read a list of facts.

Cambodia.

Yesterday.

Six thousand people collapsed, stone cold.

Death occurred at exactly the same time, or, at very least, within minutes of the others.

No immediate explanation.

The reporter deferred to voices even more calm and assured than her own. An expert in forbidden necrologies spoke of viruses and chemical spills, gaseous weapons and mass psychoses. A government official spoke of other governments, other political ideologies. A priest spoke of demons and the anger of God. The choice of paranoia was entirely the listener’s own.

But neither Medlin nor Turner heard any of it. They were both too distracted, too intent on the field that lay before them.

Medlin nodded. “Show me.”

Turner let go of the Jeep’s steering wheel, which he had been gripping hard, and furtively descended from the vehicle. He led the way with Medlin following at his heels.

The duo crunched through underbrush and swiped at low-hanging limbs. Turner clenched and unclenched his fists as he trampled the forest. His stomach climbed toward his throat and the base of his neck tingled apprehension. He wanted – needed – to scream “We shouldn’t be here!” but couldn’t. Behind him, Medlin mentally cataloged the value of this particular tract of land, stomach full and settled, neck unfeeling, no need to speak any other word than “more.”

As the men drew near the field, the forest fell mute. Birdsongs rebounded away from the place. Chattering tree-dwellers held stale breath in their lungs until the intruders were at a distance. Even the tread of the men’s boots on the dried needles underfoot produced no snap or rustle.

Turner stopped and motioned at something before him.

“Here’s the first weird part.”

Medlin stepped up beside him and looked. A polished quartz outcropping, roughly knee-high, stood at the edge of the forest. It divided the field from the wood, the beautiful from the damned.

“It runs the entire distance of the field. Circles the whole thing like a wall.”

Medlin placed a palm upon its smooth curvature. Even though the ambient temperature could be no more than fifty degrees, the crystal boundary was warm, as though in endless friction with some unseen surface.

Medlin considered its worth, then asked, “Is it natural? Or did someone build it?”

Turner shrugged. His jaw tightened. He fought the urge to turn and run.

“The geologist that came out said she couldn’t tell. Said it wasn’t possible to be natural considering the roundness but that the quartz was growing from the rock underneath, so it couldn’t be manmade, either.”

Medlin considered tourism value and the current prices of rare antiquities. He nodded toward the field.

“Let’s go in.”

Turner’s fists clenched, unclenched. “Are you sure? You know what happened to my first crew.”

“Let’s go in,” Medlin said, every syllable pointed. “I want to experience it for myself.”

Turner took in a deep breath and stepped over the border as though he had a choice. Medlin followed.

The air in the field was not the air of the forest. It was heavy, important, filled with signs and symbols and thoughts and, most of all, a profound yearning to spread wide and disperse. It crushed both inward and outward, as though a spectral crowd of billions stampeded through Turner’s and Medlin’s veins in pursuit of some incomprehensible grail.

Neither man felt alone within himself. Neither man felt safe or satisfied.

Medlin crouched and passed a hand through the wild grass. The blades, a green nearly dark as onyx and sharp as knives, retreated at his approach.

“And the other people we sent out? What did they tell you about this… vegetation?”

Beads of sweat necklaced Turner’s throat. He fought away other ideas, other words, other voices that screamed within him, until he finally stumbled upon his own.

“It’s nothing they’ve seen before. They took a sample yesterday.”

Medlin rose and surveyed the field. Ebon. Still. A fragment of space, fallen from a shattered sky. At its widest point, it stretched out for nearly a half-mile.

“And you’re sure…” Medlin paused, considering the menacing beauty of the place. “You’re sure your crew won’t work around it again?”

Turner shook his head. “Not after… not after…”

Turner’s mind strained under the slag of a billion other thoughts that were not his. He felt the wrong words sprouting on the surface of his tongue. This, this was why he hadn’t wanted to return to the field. This was why his crew wouldn’t come near the place again.

“Not after… not after… Ulan Bator… the data cannot be received by our servers… slap me harder… deconstructionist theory, practically applied… the speed of light is one hundred and eighty-six thousand, two hundred eighty-two miles per second… harder… boysenberry syrup on your pancakes… why does God ignore me? Harder! Why does God hate me? Harder!”

Medlin stared, eyes squinting. He too felt the hammer of alien consciousnesses beating on his skull.

“Turner? Is this what happened… what happened… to your… diesel mechanics… only two more hours til kickoff… I mean…”

Medlin breathed deep and bit his tongue bloody. He spat into the field. It had long been his personal philosophy that anything could be mastered and everything could be paved asunder.

“I mean…” he tried again. “Is this…”

Other thoughts, other abstractions and ideas, invaded his mind. From where, he couldn’t begin to tell.

“… what happened to…”

Twenty-two ounces of prime filet. I didn’t cheat on you. His death brings us peace.

“… your…”

Is it in? So hot today. My foot.

“… crew?”

It’s all impossible. We’re all impossible. A river too deep, too wide.

Turner nodded. He didn’t trust that he was the only traveler on his neural highways, so he didn’t even attempt to use words as vehicles for communication, lest they be hijacked.

As the men struggled against the field, the sun ducked behind the tallest trees in the distance. Shadows dripped over shadows and the field found darker shades of pitch.

Medlin bit his tongue again as the flood of psychic noise swelled deep and meaningless. A trickle of blood ran from his nose.

He grabbed Turner by his shirt and dragged him back through the field, back across the crystal barrier, back into the forest.

The men collapsed to the ground, heaving with exhaustion.

Turner coughed, phlegm and sputum congealing into a single word.

“Possession.”

Medlin picked up a nearby stick and feebly hurled it toward the field. Through the clog of blood stuffed into his airways he mumbled, “Burn it. Burn it and bulldoze it under. I want this area timbered within a week.”

Turner glanced back at the unwavering, stygian expanse. He thought he saw movement in the field, a rearrangement of space or time or something not quite tangible, but it may have been nothing more than the creeping of twilight shade.

“Yes sir,” Turner heard himself say, though the voice that slithered from his mouth might just as well have come from the dirt beneath his feet.

***

The next day, Turner stood by the crystal wall, watching a line of men and women prepare for the controlled burn.

His walkie-talkie crackled.

“We’re ready to go.”

Turner hesitated. He thought of his great-grandmother, a native of these woods, her tribe driven off the land more than a century ago.

When he was a tiny boy, she used to regale him with stories of the forest. He thrilled to the adventures of Owl and wondered at the possibility of meeting the stick people she claimed lived in the mountains; he imagined himself fighting side by side with the brave Young Chinook and was cowed by the incomprehensible actions of Coyote.

But those were legends, primitive superstitions, and nothing more.

So when his great-grandmother had told him of a place hidden deep within the trees, a place of eternal shadow that connected this world to another, he knew it was foolish to believe it might be real. She had called the place “the field of becoming and ending,” and through it, she claimed, all human spirits arose and all human spirits would return.

Turner knew no such place existed. He knew that myths and legends were just superstitious mumbo-jumbo created by people who desperately needed to trap the universe in a cage of flimsy answers.

And yet he hesitated, his empty hand clenching and unclenching, clenching and unclenching.

Finally, he brought the transceiver to his lips and issued a command. It wavered in his throat, as the final orders of all desperate and defeated leaders tend to do.

“Clear it out.”

The men and women stepped into the field. Drip torches held low and heads suddenly swimming beneath a deluge of ideas not their own, they began to leak flame.

Silent screams rose up from the grasses, ten million minds incinerated in seconds.

In desert encampments, tropical beachheads, rice paddocks, graying tundras, and ancient, dust-laden cities tens of thousands of miles away, bodies withered and drifted to earth like crinkled husks returning to dust after a long harvest.

And the burn had only just started.

Forward the firestarters marched and forward the midnight green grasses fell to ash.

Though no wind or breeze brushed his skin, Turner felt the rush of a vacuum opening before him. It drew into its maw not mass, but meaning, any meaning that it could touch. Connections, constructions, reasons and rationalizations: all manner of definition went flying from some ethereal organ nestled under his heart.

Suddenly, he could barely remember why the flames licked the field, barely recall why he stood in a forest with machines at his back, barely sketch the equations that quantified his value as a person and qualified his purpose as foreman.

A man in the field crumpled to the ground, dead and empty before he hit soil.

Several heads turned, but they found no significance in the expiration, no linking thread between their existence and this heap of cooling flesh.

And the flames rolled on. And the soundless screams from the distant places, the foreign lungs, soared closer.

Turner raised the walkie-talkie but didn’t know why he’d done so; indeed, he no longer even recognized the device as anything other than “hard-smooth thing.” Having no idea why the thing would be in his hand other than as a found morsel of sustenance, he stuck it in his mouth and bit down. An incisor snapped in half and he roared, as much in surprise as pain. Clearly the hard-smooth thing was not food.

Another man in the field dropped. Then a woman. Then another man.

Turner – though he wouldn’t have responded to that name now had his dearest friend called it – threw the radio against a tree. All those unseen inner workings that made the thing what it was – the compacted wires, the circuits, the human ingenuities – burst forth and scattered as its casing fractured into shards.

The remaining burn crew began to wander away from their task, loping toward the woodlands on the rim of the field, searching for they knew not what.

And still the fire they’d ignited reached out for more sustenance, burning hotter, burning without direction, sending up white, luminous smoke where it devoured the field.

In nations stuffed with fleece and gold, wine and cheese, the silent scream set loose by the fire finally arrived. Cars crashed headlong into concrete barriers; pedestrians staggered along sidewalks and collapsed onto polished cobblestone streets; and everywhere, everywhere meaning dissolved.

Turner spun away from the field and ran, a fear below all other fears engulfing his increasingly primitive brainstem. Past the pines he ran, past the vehicles parked along the trail, past the acres of stumps he’d helped create. He ran until he could run no more, until his breath found no solace within his body.

Finally, mercifully, the path ended at a ramshackle office trailer and he stopped to wonder at the odd structure before him.

A vestige of correlation haunted his mind; it forced him to approach the trailer and mount the wobbly stairs to its door, where he stood bewildered. No longer recognizing the doorknob for its purpose or function, he slammed himself against the door, shoulder hunched low, legs springing up in a primal dance of survival. The hinges – rusted and weak – snapped under the pressure and the door collapsed inward.

Turner stumbled into the trailer and wandered its length. Piles of paperwork and office supplies littered the interior. They were no more meaningful to him than a stack of encyclopedias to an ant. He sniffed the air, unsure why he’d ventured into this place.

At the far end of the trailer, before a plastic folding table heaped with electronic equipment and file folders, sat a heavyset man, slumped and motionless in his chair. Clear liquids drained from his opened eyes, nose, and mouth.

Turner moved to the man and prodded him with his foot.

No response.

Again a light kick and again only a jiggle of lifeless fat and muscle.

Turner grabbed hold of the man’s chair and tilted it. The body toppled onto the floor, its inert weight reverberating off every flimsy surface as it hit baseboard.

Turner grunted and slid into the dead man’s seat. He stared at what the man must have last seen: a laptop screen, glowing with the vacant desk of a local news team. The time – 7:22 AM – and a “Channel 8” logo hovered like ghosts beneath the desk. The feed faded to black and the word “BUFFERING” popped on screen. Turner slapped at the screen, but nothing changed.

And the fire in the field continued to blaze.

And the unseen edifices of humanness continued to crumble.

An object lying on the table beside the laptop suddenly lit up and began to vibrate. Two large squares – one green, one red – flashed upon its face.

Turner stroked the green square – for reasons primeval, he felt more comfortable touching its color than the red – and watched as the tremulous thing grew becalmed.

The splinter of a voice shot through the trailer’s spaces. Distant and thin, sharp and hurried, it asked: “Nathan? Nathan? Are you there? I don’t know what’s happening. Please answer me. Please. Everything’s going quiet. My… my head feels bad. I can’t… I can’t think. Nathan? Are you there? Nathan?”

Then, as forever, nothing.

The vibrating thing went dark and Turner, uncaring, unknowing, and unconcerned with what came next, threw it into a corner. He stood from the desk, shambled to a window, and gazed out onto the forest.

Something about it felt right. Something about it made him want to howl. So he did, if only for the brief time before even those base instincts dissolved to nothing and he collapsed to the floor, utterly inert.

Meanwhile, in the crystal-limned field far beyond the trailer, the sable grasses still burned and the unheard screams whirled ever louder, ever more shrill, deafening everything but the chaos they sought so hard to conceal.

_______

Kurt Fawver is a purveyor of wonder and terror, the grotesque and the preternatural (that is to say, he writes horror, dark fantasy, sci-fi, and whatever other weirdness wanders into his head). He’s also a scholar of the literary and cinematic arts and, on occasion, masquerades as a gentleman (though this is purely to lull others into a false sense of security).

Currently, Kurt teaches literature and writing at the University of South Florida (where he earned his doctorate), scribbles heady philosophical tomes, and draws down daemons from the stars for you to enjoy and be thrilled by (borrowing from Lovecraft there). He hopes you enjoy the bittersweet and sometimes venomous fruits of his labor!

You can find Kurt at any number of fine locations online:

www.facebook.com/kfawver
www.twitter.com/banalapocalypse
www.kurtfawver.com

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