The four friends stumble, laughing, around the edge of a wheat field. The tall, wispy grass bends towards the group in the chilly night breeze, as if beckoning them closer. In the distance, mostly obscured by trees, is a tower reaching up towards the pitch black sky; the remnants of a castle, its name long forgotten to the slippery memory of time.
The blonde in the borrowed jacket and coke bottle glasses stops to look up. A gash of milky light spreads across the dark. “Have you ever seen the sky like that before?” she says, spreading her hands towards the heavens, trying to encompass everything there is.
The tall girl with the dreadlocks and freckled face smiles, a little gap in her front teeth peeking out. “The Milky Way. There’s no light pollution all the way out here.”
The handsome, strapping young man with vitiligo takes a long drink from their shared wine bottle. The liquid tastes of sourness and secrets. “We shouldn’t stop. This is someone’s farm.”
The girl who was once a boy smiles a crooked smile at the strapping boy. “It’s not like back home. I camped on people’s farms last summer. No one minded, so long as you don’t mess with anything.”
The boy feels himself blush a bit. He has a crush on the girl with the crooked smile. He feels a longing to tousle her dyed-red locks with his fingers and send a shiver down her spine with his breath on her neck. But he does not possess the bravery to act on it. Perhaps the wine might help him find that bravery.
The four make their way up the hill to the broken piece of the ancient castle. Hard, damp, moss-covered stone stands silently, overlooking the fields and forests below. The green seems to stretch endlessly, a sea of leaves and grass before the friends. The blonde feels for a moment as if she herself will blend into the endlessness, melt into nothing but foliage, like a strange kind of vertigo. The feeling passes.
Around the back of the tower is a small, dark opening in the side of a little mound. Stones ring it, giving the hole a purposeful look and letting the group know whatever it contains must be man-made. Animals do not build doorways.
The gap-tooth girl bends down, peers inside. “Where do you think it goes?”
The blonde joins her friend. “Maybe it’s one of those burial chambers. There are a bunch in this area.”
“I see a light at the end.”
The group looks at each other, silent for a few long seconds. Wordlessly, they decide to explore.
The girl with the crooked smile crawls in first. She’s always been bravest, since the group played together on the playground.
The blonde follows quickly. She’s fond of mysteries and old stories. The unknown beckons her like an old lover.
The gap-tooth girl with the dreadlocks looks behind them before heading in, taking in the dark, beautiful sky, noticing how the stars seem dimmer than they had only a few minutes before.
The boy follows last, timid where he wishes he was fearless.
They crawl, on hands and knees, for a time. The tunnel seems almost made for them, being a perfectly comfortable height for them to crawl without having to hunch over. The boy finds it the most difficult but only because he clutches the wine bottle in one hand.
After a while, they emerge into a clearing in the center of a ring of large and ancient trees. Someone is clearly using the area, as rugs cover a large portion of the ground and pillows lie in a heap. A rickety table is filled with bottles containing indeterminate liquids and bowls of fruits.
The group, curious, looks around the small camp. A lamp, filled with a strong-smelling oil, still burns a little flame.
Noise starts from the trees. The noise is happy, singing and laughing and a twinkling of bells.
Four people enter the clearing. The first wears bits of leather, sewn into shabby pants. His chest is bare even in the chilly night and his shoes look like hoofs.
The second sprouts antlers from her head, a mass of curly brown hair framing her pale face. The blonde tells herself the antlers must be attached to a headband.
The third grins a crooked smile, not unlike the girl who use to be a boy, although this new girl’s mouth is full of sharpened teeth. Like animal teeth. Her eyes are green and bright.
The fourth is looking at the friends with strange eyes, the pupils unlike anything a human contains.
The two groups stop moving. They are staring at each other and waiting for someone to move first, a collective breath held.
The bare-chested boy smiles. His teeth also look like animal teeth.
“Hi. You coming to our party?”
The girl who use to be a boy speaks up first. “What's the party for?”
All the newcomers smile now. The blonde in the coke bottle glasses sees they all have animal teeth.
The girl with the antlers says “It’s the first day of fall. We always have a party.”
The girl with the dreadlocks asks “Is that why you guys have costumes on?”
Those with animal teeth simply shrug their shoulders.
“Come have some wine with us. It’ll warm you up.” This comes from the one with the strange eyes. The voice sounds soft, like a cat’s purr.
The two groups join together, uneasy at first. The strapping boy offers some of his wine to the bare-chested boy. The strapping boy feels a little bit of jealousy at the other boy’s tan skin. He is self conscious of his own patched flesh, like something a careless painter has splashed. He doesn’t know the girl who use to be a boy has never once thought his skin odd. All she thinks about is how warm his hands feel. About how she very much wants to feel if the rest of him is as warm.
The group lounges on pillows, passing different bottles around. Some are sweeter than any honey. Some smell faintly of cinnamon and childhood. One is nothing but smoke, tinted with a sharp tang. As the blonde girl with the coke bottle glasses pours the dark, bitter smoke into her mouth she hears the voice of her grandmother singing and sees her long-dead dog running through the trees. Across from her, the crooked-smile girl she does not know peers at her from behind one green eye and one brown eye. Wait, no. It is a trick of the light. Two brown eyes.
The bare chested boy pulls up the girl with the gap-tooth smile. Music is playing, but from where no one can say. Tinny and fleeting, something half forgotten from a dream. It drifts and washes over the group, clouding their minds. The bare chested boy and the gap-tooth girl dance slowly, in twirling circles. The girl is getting dizzy, needs to sit down. The girl with the antlers is laughing as she helps her to a pillow. The girl with the antlers smiles with a gap-tooth grin identical to that of the girl in her arms. Freckles dance across her pale skin, which is suddenly looking darker. She leaves the dizzy girl on the ground and dances with the bare-chested boy. As he spins her around her brown curls seem to grow longer and tangled. When they stop, instead of ringlets, she now has long dreadlocks.
The girl who was once a boy sees these strange things and is scared. “We should go. We have a train to catch in the morning.”
The one with inhuman eyes shakes their head. “Stay. It isn’t late, yet. We have time, yet.”
The bare-chested boy gently runs a finger down the cheek of the strapping boy’s face. “You are so beautiful.”
The girl who was once a boy feels a bit of anger at the touch. She wants to be the one to caress him gently. The bare-chested boy starts pulling off the strapping boy’s shirt. “I want to see if your skin is the same all over.” The boy is stumbling from the wine, tries to fight back but doesn’t have the coordination. The girl with the antlers is helping. Her dreadlocks are tangled in her antlers, like vines in a tree. The girl with the crooked smile leans down and kisses the girl who used to be a boy softly on the mouth. As they pull apart, everyone can see they have the same shade of dyed red hair. The girl who used to be a boy feels something strange under her hair. Running her hands under her locks, she finds soft animal ears. She stumbles up and is caught by the one with the inhuman eyes.
“Too much wine, yet. Stay and clear your head.” As they talk, their hair shimmers in the moonlight, long and blonde.
The blonde in the coke bottle glasses quite suddenly can’t see. The world is a blur, shapes wavering in her vision. The one with the inhuman eyes gently takes off the blonde’s glasses.
“You don’t need these anymore.” They put the glasses on. The glasses help to hide the unnatural pupils.
Suddenly the blonde is sweating in the night chill. She must get out of the borrowed jacket immediately or she will burn up. Her skin itches and crawls. Feathers cover her arms, downy and soft. She wants to scream but it comes out as a warbling screech instead. The one with the crooked smile, now looking very much like the girl who used to be a boy, picks up the borrowed jacket and helps the one with the inhuman eyes into it.
The bare-chested boy is no longer bare-chested, he has put on the strapping boy’s shirt. The strapping boy crouches on the ground on all fours. The white patches on his skin sprout fur, followed by the dark patches. He is still beautiful but no longer human. A wolf, with a patched coat, thick and luxurious. The girl who use to be a boy feels something in her mouth, a tooth falling out. Underneath is another, this one sharp and deadly. She starts to scream but it comes out as a howl.
The girl with the dreadlocks tries to run, but finds her legs aren’t working as they once did. She writhes on the ground, something, many somethings, forcing their way out of her skin. Feathers, black and sleek. She looks to her friends for help. Instead of those she has known since childhood she sees two wolves, one with black and white fur and one with red fur, and a great, black raven. Now, quite suddenly, there are two great, black ravens and the girl with the dreadlocks is gone.
The four with animal teeth, laughing, pick up the discarded clothes and put them on. Unfamiliar fabrics on skin that has only known leather and leaves. Shoes on feet that have only ever been bare. It will take some getting used to, but then, the four have all the time in the worlds.
The two wolves sniff each other, familiarity mingling with fear and confusion. The ginger wolf nuzzles the other and he reciprocates. The two huge ravens give sad cacaws to the night sky. But soon they catch a hint of blood on the wind, some wounded animal. They take to the sky, leading the wolves to the find so that the four might share their meal. The memory of their former lives mingles with the forest, softening.
Far and away, through a tunnel next to an unnamed tower, four altogether different friends stumble, laughing, next to a wheat field. Their animal teeth flash in the night.
By Shelli Frew