As I approached the woods, I stopped pedaling and let gravity pull me down the road. This far out of town — or this close to the woods — the roads were just gravel. The wind rushed around my hair and the gravel kicked up dust behind my bike. It was a boy’s bike, it’s frame too big for mine, but it was mine all the same. I loved the sound it made as I winded to a stop. I allowed my bike to find a resting place, and put my foot down to catch myself from falling.
I looked into the woods, which seemed darker given the sun was only just starting to set. This was my favorite time of the day. I could feel the Sun at my back warming my hair, and took a deep breath of the Summer air. I smelled trees rotting from the rains the past week, but found it comforting. It was honest, at least.
In my pocket I could feel the envelope poking against my breast. I took it out of my denim jacket, at first to readjust it, but now that it was in my hands, I felt compelled to open it again. To feel the fibrous paper on my fingertips, and see the deep black ink on the page. I had never gotten such a letter before; In fact, I never got many letters at all. Most of the things we got in the mail were bills for my mother, so the prospect of someone with a message for me was a rush. This was to be the first secret I cultivated, the catalyst that set the dominos in motion.
I opened the letter looked at it’s strange message, typed on a typewriter.
Not that I had many to invite. It was signed in thick dark ink at the bottom, like from an old fountain pen. The inscription just said: “— R.”
At first, I wrote it off as some elaborate joke. Everyone has heard of the Raconteur, it wouldn’t be that hard to type a letter. It hadn’t been mailed, since there was no return address. Even if it wasn’t fake, the prospect of walking alone into the woods wasn’t exactly appealing. They had scared me as a child. But I had learned these woods. I’d built forts here for years, even lived out here for a few days during the divorce. I wasn’t afraid anymore.
I folded the letter and placed it back in my pocket. Some of the ink from the signature (if you could really call it that) had spilled onto my thumb. I watched the ink swirl and slide, filling the valleys of my fingerprint. I watched like you might watch a bug crawl across your fingers. Once it had seemed to come to rest, I walked into the woods.
It was getting darker, and I was losing my resolve. It would be dark soon, and my flashlight wasn’t going to cut it in these woods. Soon I’d have to make a decision: turn around or hunker in for the night. Not only that, but I was at risk of missing the screening. I hadn’t come that far to turn around, so I pressed on.
I rested my hand on a tree nearby, and found the back completely clean of bark. Looking back, it seemed like the last 4 rows of trees were all the same way. Beyond that, it was too dark to tell. Was this a sign, or more afterimages from the storm?
I came across the small stream flowing through the woods. Back when I was growing up, I’d always heard stories about the river in the woods. It was the border between our town and the next. I imagined something as wide as the Nile, miles wide at the peak.
The reality was far less dramatic. It was just a small stream, maybe 3 feet across. It flowed through our quiet woods. The leaves on the trees above had started to become red and orange for the coming Autumn, like the colors of a fire. I put my boots in the river and crossed as careful as I could, planting each foot as an anchor before trudging on.
I was familiar with the woods, more familiar than most (definitely more than anyone else at my school), and still this area looked unfamiliar to me. Up ahead through the trees, I saw a subtle glow. I walked to that and emerged in something unexpected. The treeline broke, and gave way to a meadow. Thick grass grew to my waist, and small white flowers populated the area. The glow came from what looked like thousands of fireflies, all blinking in turn, so that the meadow never went dark. I felt the wind in my hair. A firefly landed on my shoulder for a moment before taking to the air. It was magical. That’s where I heard it.
A gentle hum, low and strong, reverberated through the ground. I felt it in my feet, and in my chest. I looked up, straight ahead from where I’d entered (I think; I might’ve gotten a bit turned around in the field) and saw the gathering ahead. A small fire burned at in a bit, surrounded by 10 or so people sitting on logs. I went to them like a moth.
As I approached, I got a better look at those assembled. They seemed to come from all walks of life, all different ages, body types, ethnicities, men, women, children, all were present. All would bear witness. Not all looked back to greet me, but those who did, did so with a smile. In front of the circle there was a silver screen, which reflected the light of the fire.
Between the screen and the fire, there was a projector and projectionist. The projector was an old-fashioned one, with just one brass wheel on the top. Its operator was a man in a large sleek coat, high collared, whose lapels were cut asymmetrically, the left side rising far higher than the right. It was overlaid on his chest and sealed with what looked like the pin of an owl. Even though nearly half his face was covered, I could see his short brown hair and a single piercing green eye.
“Ah, Olivia,” he called to me, and I turned to face him, “Pleased to meet you. Please take a seat.”
I did as I was told.
“Well then, that’s everyone: Time to begin.” He pressed a button on the projector, and the wheel spun to life. The screen showed only shadow, as if the film hadn’t begun. Instead of re-spooling itself as it played, this film landed unceremoniously in a shiny bucket next to the projector. Once a few inches of film piled up, the projectionist dropped a match into it, setting the spent film on fire. Feeding the flame, the projector spun. The projector whirred on into the night, the fire crackled, and the embers radiated away like fireflies, or dreams.