This story is by Gabrielle Contelmo and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
No one ever returned. None before. None after. Just him.
A figure exploded from the edge of the forest, scattering twigs and scraps of mist. Donafel let out a sharp breath, a plume of condensation. Ghostly antlers crowned the figure’s head and, for a moment, the familiar terror gripped him. But no—the antlers were merely the crisscross of branches.
He took a shuddering breath, letting his fear and disappointment dissipate into the chill morning air. The wooden porch creaked as he shifted.
The figure spotted Donafel and careened to a halt, still shadowed by the towering trees. Mud streaked his face and clothes and he cradled his wrists, scabbed with dried blood. Donafel and the boy stared at each other.
The weight of another’s gaze—a human gaze—made Donafel feel naked. For so long his companions had been the silence of the cabin walls, the forest that crouched just beyond the fence, and the unseen watchers in the trees.
The sight of the boy brought back flashes of memory.
At the center of town, the fog dissipated until a rough circle cleared around the hitching post and the child tethered there. Out of the viscous, billowing white, a figure emerged.
His old life seemed more dream than reality. But that one night remained sharp, pungent. On the days the fog crawled from the forest, so, too, did the memories.
Once, it had been yearly; the fog would slink from the east, defying wind and sun to creep from between the trees, across the fields, through the town’s main gate.
Now… now it came far more often.
Each month, at the dark of the moon, the scars around Donafel’s wrists started to throb. The pain heralded the wall of white that oozed from the forest and occluded the cabin. When the ache in his left wrist extended to his elbow, he knew the fog had reached the town, and preparations had begun—quietly, so as not to alarm the children.
Donafel remembered the fear in his parents’ eyes. The children would be scared anyway.
The townsfolk would lock their doors, keep the children hidden beneath beds. Livestock would huddle in the farthest corner of each barn. The main gate would stand open to the abandoned streets: an invitation.
Donafel whimpered, throat too raw to scream anymore. He tugged at his bonds, frantic, until his wrists bled down his arms, but the hitching post was set deep into the ground. The figure stepped forward.
Every month, as darkness fell, Donafel remained on the porch, despite the fear clawing through him. It was a self-assigned post, borne of desperation, fear, and guilt. He would stand there until sunrise, when the fog dissipated and a wan sun dawned, revealing the natural morning mist clinging to the dips in the hills. In town, he knew, the hitching post was empty.
The boy, momentarily arrested by the sight of Donafel, broke into a stumbling jog, following the path that led back to town, to his parents’ door.
Donafel shook his head. The boy would find no safety there. The image of his parents’ faces, the horror in their eyes when Donafel returned the following morning… It haunted him far more than the memories of that night.
He turned. There was nothing he could do.
The door closed behind him, shutting out the sight of the child. Intent on his bed, Donafel stumbled over the box of supplies he’d hastily placed inside the prior evening, too focused on the encroaching fog to put it away properly. He tumbled to the floor, jarring his weak elbow as he landed.
Donafel sat up, wincing as he rubbed his elbow. The crate containing the sack of barley and lantern oil, left on the path each week, was his only contact with his old life. His mother’s doing, he guessed. Though brave enough to come so near the edge of the forest, even she wouldn’t step one foot closer to the cabin—to Donafel—than necessary.
The cabin had been long abandoned by the time he sought its shelter. Back then, the two rooms dwarfed him. The silence pressed against his skin, suffocating him. The emptiness reminded him of what he’d lost. And every night, alone in the musty bed, he remembered:
The figure was tall, taller than any human man. Above, antlers rose from the head. Other figures appeared in the mist, all cowled in dark robes, all with antlers like horrific crowns.
IT IS TIME, a deep, dark voice echoed in his mind.
For the first few years, he was certain they would return for him. Every time the fog arose, he waited on the front porch, stiff with fear. He never saw them pass by, neither on their way to the town, nor on their return, bearing a much smaller figure between them.
A part of Donafel knew they still waited for him. He could feel their gaze prickling at the back of his neck when he worked around the cabin, when he lit a lantern in the evening, in the dark of night when he emerged onto the porch to stare back at the darkness.
Donafel hauled himself from the floor by the jutting windowsill. He looked out the cracked glass.
The boy was likely halfway to town. No matter his wounds, physical or mental, while he ran towards home, he had hope. It would die soon enough. The townsfolk would expel him as soon as he arrived. Another abomination, rejected by the creatures. Donafel had been the first and, for the last five years, the only.
They towered above him, three times his height, made even taller by their antlers. The procession made no sound except for the snapping of twigs beneath Donafel’s feet. The fog between the trees seemed to glow, despite the darkness of the moon.
As his shock faded, terror gave him strength. He twisted from their grasp, stifling a cry as he wrenched his elbow, and ran, looking back only once.
They stood, dark hoods all facing him, and watched as he fled.
Nothing he could do, Donafel reminded himself.
Around the cabin, dew lay heavy on the long grass. Moisture turned the rotting fence dark, except for lighter spots of lichen.
Fog seeped from the forest, an opaque cloud that soon overtook his fence.
Donafel pressed closer to the cold glass, dread curling in his stomach. The fog shouldn’t have returned until the next new moon.
As soon as it reached town, preparations would begin again and a new child would be brought to the hitching post at dusk. The screaming would start soon thereafter, when the child realized what had happened.
And Donafel would watch from his porch as the creatures returned for the second night in a row. They would pass, silent, invisible, to retrieve their new offering.
His breath quickened. Another exile. Another sacrifice. And it was his fault. For one hundred years, the creatures had been content with their lot: one child a year, according to the ancient agreement. Until Donafel escaped.
Outside, the fog thickened.
How many children had the town lost because of him?
He might as well have gone with them all those years ago. His life would have had purpose, at least. Instead, he drifted through each day, one eye always on the forest, waiting for them to take him back, guilt churning in his stomach each time they led another child past his door.
Donafel stepped outside. Would they reject him, like his people had done?
IT IS TIME. Even now, he still heard the creature’s voice in his mind.
He left the porch.
The path was overgrown, worn down to a trail inches wide. The tall grass swished against his legs, leaving wet streaks on his trousers. When he looked back, the fog had already consumed the cabin. It curled around him, settling on his shoulders, on his face. The dampness against his skin felt almost comforting, a cool hand to the forehead, a balm to the fever. It beckoned him onward.
The road that led to the forest was wide enough for six men to pass abreast and well-kept, though no human used this lane. His feet carried him to the border between the fields and the forest. At the edge, he stopped and stared into the dimness of the wood.
Among the trees, a shadow waited. A tall, cowled figure, crowned by antlers. Beside it, behind it, rows of others stood. Their antlers resembled a thicket of tangled branches.
The creature at the center spread its arms.
An unfamiliar lightness filled Donafel’s chest. This was what he should have done all those years ago. This was what the townsfolk had never understood.
A gift had to be given willingly.
“It is time,” he whispered.
He went to meet them.