The Planted Mouths JOHN MCMORRAN
The path tenuously suggests humans. It is grown over by tree limbs, between which the snow falls and takes shape on the forest floor. Cedars exchange secrets when the breeze gives them voice, but the forest seems more intent upon the sounds of the man. It holds its breath while his boots sigh in the powder. His body’s form and substance are lost within his rags. Individually no article of clothing is complete. They are mismatched, torn, and have all known other owners. His breath comes in silver bursts. Ahead, a vertical column of woodsmoke rises from somewhere in the forest. The fire’s smoke is umbilical, a gray tether between the gray clouds above and the gray world beneath. The only exposed skin on the man is the raw red line that separates his upper and lower face. Through this windburned slit his eyes are hard and gray like the world around him. As he nears the source of the smoke, the forest recedes and the path widens, eventually transitioning to hard packed snow that has been turned over recently and often. The ugly brown knuckles of tree stumps jut up rudely in places, imperfection in a formerly virgin tableau. The howl emanates from somewhere in the forest, and the sound is devoid of all that can rightly be called human. Without pause, the man shrugs his ragged pack from
his shoulders—in a single movement discarding all that he has in favour of flight. He runs. The house grows closer, but the pace is agonizing. As he runs, the howl sounds again and experience reminds him that trees do not allow sound to travel far. The snow grows deeper as he approaches the house. He does not leave the path, though he now needs to raise his knees high to pull his feet free of the powder. The snow flows over his knees and the man looks back behind him. The trees are silent and sober and promise that nothing is amiss. The howl again, and he whimpers and stumbles when a horrible pain erupts in his foot. He tries to retrieve it, but the rest of him is sinking into the crystal white and the howl sounds from somewhere close by in the forest. He pulls and the pain is immense. He drives his gloved hands into the snow and swipes it aside furiously. It tumbles back into place, and the man thrashes and shouts as the pain intensifies. He locates his foot and sweeps aside the snow and then screams in horror. A woman’s eyes stare up at him, filmed over as though cataracted. Her mandibles are full of boot rubber, and they continue to chew. He cries out and pulls at his injured foot when pain erupts in the other one. He tears this second foot free of the snow quickly, causing him to stumble forward onto his belly. He begins to crawl. An attached head follows him up and out of the snow. Disembodied, it blindly clings, chewing his
foot as he ploughs a trail with his chest though the soft upper snow toward the house. Pain begins in his knees as they sink too low, and he moans and churns his arms like a drowning man in deep water. He forgets himself, and in his desperation he drives his hands downward, looking for something solid by which to drag himself forward. His hands sink into the snow and are met by the gnashing jaws of the undead.“Help me! Oh God help me!”His rags are being devoured below the surface of the snow, and every time he pulls a limb free the churned white drifts become freckled with blood.“Somebody help me!” he wails, and the howls from the forest answer with vicious proximity. He thrashes forward and screams again, and as the field of planted heads strips him down piece-by-piece with eager teeth, his only chance is to fight toward the house and hope that when he arrives, there is enough of him left to survive.The door of the house opens and a hooded head looks out from the crack, yellow firelight spilling out onto snow curdled gray in the dusk.“Help me! Please help me!” The man reaches toward his last hope with a desperate clawing motion. A head is attached to his wrist, blood dripping from its chin as its jaw muscles ripple. The figure ducks back inside and the crawling man howls and kicks two heads free, collecting more from the effort to shed them. The figure runs from the house with a rope over his shoulder and the crawling man wails, his chin dipping below the snow as the heads pull him under.
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