White noise behind my eye lids. My face is frozen. Snow blocking my breath. I push my hands into the ground and lift myself. The back of my neck is a bag of ice, crunching. Knees wet through my jeans.
Did I faint? I don’t think so.
I’m not alone in the clearing. Figures come into focus. The hunting party from this morning. The hunting party that doesn’t exist, in their dusty period dress. They’re carrying a couple of archaic rifles. Two foxhounds are sniffing around their feet. I can’t feel any of their emotions.
My vision is still hazy. It takes me a few seconds to see the infant sized figures. Naked, with off-white, seamless and sexless bodies. Unfinished children’s dolls. Hands smooth, with only two digits like mittens. Their heads are hairless pearls. Their faces are flat. Two beads of jet for eyes, two nostrils but no bridge of a nose. Their mouths, a lipless line.
One figure is standing next to each member of the hunting party. All of them are staring at me, except the dogs which are preoccupied sniffing the stag’s blood and footprints.
“You alright, boy?” asks the man with the pipe, the man I saw this morning. I lock onto his eyes, but I don’t answer. “This is what I mean,” he says to the older woman in the party, “they’re all like this.”
“Dickie,” the older lady chastises, “help the boy.”
“I’m not helping him. Get someone from the house to help him,” the two carry on bickering while the other two in the group just stare at me.
One of the creamy figures steps forward. I lock my eyes onto it, pushing myself up off all fours, upright onto my knees. It stops. Dark clouds swirl around its beady eyes.
Another of the infant figures touches the leg of one of the hunting party, a youngish man. He speak in a synthetic, gynandromorphic tone, with no inflection, “How can you see us?”
“With my fucking eyes,” I spit.
“There is another here, like you,” the man says involuntarily.
I cast my glance from figure to figure. Adrenaline tightens my shoulders. Rage twisting my back muscles like unset glass. I rise up onto my feet. Fear, blowing away the white noise in my vision. My consciousness swells out like a cist. Painful, stretched and disgusting.
The figure steps back. The two hounds raise their heads and look at me. “Can they see you?” I shout, nodding at the hunting party. The blanched figures don’t respond.
“Who are you talking to, boy?” Dickie asks me. “See he’s alright,” he says to his group, “Just in a bit of shock. He’s not built for the cold.” Then to me, “Go back to the house and warm yourself up, son.”
“Leave,” says younger man, still being touched by the white figure. “We won’t let you interfere.”
“The boy has gone mad,” Dickie says, chuckling. But his chuckles stop suddenly when the smooth figure next to him touches his thigh. “You can’t stop the alignment,” says Dickie, in the same, uncanny, celluloid tone. One of the figures takes a step closer to me again, its mouth creeping into a painful, stretched grin. I push the blister of my consciousness out further. The figure pauses.
Something slams into my awareness, then I hear Cindy calling my name.
Snow against my face. I push my fists into the ground and raise my head off the snow. My legs are warm with numbness.
Nobody is in the clearing.
Before I can stand Cindy and Ozzy come through the tree line. She comes to me, putting an arm under mine, helping me stand. Ozzy grabs my cheeks. His hot, coffee breath in my face. Second hand anti-drowsiness.
“I’m OK,” I say, trying to push for space like a smothered child.
“Did you faint?” asks Ozzy.
“No. I don’t know.”
Cindy stays quiet, simply rubbing my fingers through our gloves.
“Just, let me…” I say, breaking free and moving past Ozzy to look at the snow. The childlike footprints and the staggered prints of the stag are still there. The blood, now pink and diluted by the snow is visible. But there is no evidence of the hunting party.
“What happened to the stag?” asks Ozzy, a little too sympathetically. He thinks I’m going crazy. “Kanu told us you faced up to it.”
“I’m alright, Ozzy. The deer just did a lot of snorting then stumbled off.”
“Was it shot?” he asks looking at the stains on the snow.
“I don’t know. It could have been anything. But it looked scared, like it was being chased.”
“Did you see anyone chasing it?” he asks. “We’re supposed to be here alone.”
“No, nobody” I say. Looking at snow, knowing I can’t prove my version of events. Cindy narrows her eyes. “I remember the stag walking away. I must’ve fainted when the adrenaline wore off.”
Ozzy seems happy with this explanation, “Let’s get back and get warm. It won’t be long until lunch is being served.”
“Hell no. Let’s finish the orienteering. Don’t let me spoil everything.”
“It’s a wash,” says Ozzy.
“At least two or three of the points aren’t where the map says,” says Cindy.
“Are you sure you’re reading the map right?”
Cindy raises her eyebrows and spits out a breath of air, “Leave him here, Ozzy. Let him find his own way back.”
“Come on,” he chuckles. Ozzy leads the way through the treeline. Cindy links her arm into mine. Her affection feels like it is synchronising me back to into reality.
“I could feel you from the other side of the estate,” she says to me in a low voice. “What really happened?”
“I’ll explain later,” I say into her ear. “But something is pretty pissed off that we’re here.”