THE BONFIRE DANCERS

by Micah Castle

Jerry’s jeep jerks and rattles over the rutted road. I hold onto the safety bar tightly, and briefly wonder if I should’ve stayed home instead of taking up Jerry’s invite to the party. Too late now.

“Are you sure about this?” I ask. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.” Nothing but tall oak trees flanking the path pass by. Everything else lost to night.

“Absolutely,” he shouts. “I’ve been wanting to go for years, but every Halloween I’m working or some other bullshit’s going on.”

“And they’re okay with me coming?” A dim red light appears in the distance. “They know I’m not a part of the group, right?”

“I’m not a part of the group either, remember? I just know a few of them from class. But they said the more the merrier, because tonight’s supposed to be a very important, the 30th anniversary or something.” He takes his hand off the wheel, waving it. “Just don’t forget that you have to wear your mask at all times. They’re strict about that for whatever reason.”

I nod. The light becomes an enormous bonfire in the center of a wide clearing. There’s people dancing around the fire, others walking around. Long shadows drain into the surrounding darkness. Jerry finds a spot before the clearing by a stump, and kills the engine. His car is the only one here.

Where did everyone else park?

He turns to me and against the firelight, I make out his protruding brow and large nose. “All right buddy, you ready?” He smiles, takes the mask from his lap—weaving gnarled branches twined with green vines, two holes cut out for the eyes, and a crude slash for the mouth—and slips it on.

My fingers tingle as I grab mine from the backseat. A deformed, plastic thing with sticks in the shape of wings jutting from the top of a slab of black, and red roots splaying from the bottom. I put it on. Immediately the smell of sweat and plastic combine. I regret not telling him to get me one with nose holes. I breath out of my mouth, glad for the opening.

Jerry’s out of the jeep before I ask if there’s anyone I’d know here. I glance at the throng of people; he’s already lost among them.

As soon as I enter the clearing I’m given a red solo cup, brimming with some kind of brownish red tinted beer. I smell cinnamon and hops, which is pleasantly surprising. Taking a sip, I taste ginger. My stomach warms. I take a bigger gulp as I move through the crowd.

Everyone’s masks are similar to mine, to Jerry’s: branches and twine, roots, and stones, leaves and earth. Each one forming a mangled mess of things that somehow stays on their faces by a strap on the back. Muddled, whispered conversations are all around me. I’m not sure if they’re speaking a foreign language, because what I do hear I don’t understand. It’s fine, whatever. I take another drink, and meander to the fire.

People dance and sing, rotating around the bonfire. They all wear the same flowing gray costumes that remind me of oversized robes, but they seem made from a thin papery material. Their bodies are silhouetted within, and I discover they’re all women—nude, too. Embarrassed, I look at their masks, finding they’re all the same, but different from everyone else’s. Polished white with contorted, blackened horns pointing skyward, and a rounded chin with flaying black roots, loosely dangling against their necks.

Their singing is like chanting, droning, speaking in that language I couldn’t understand. I get as close as I can be without getting in their way, strain my ears in an attempt to decipher the words. Still can’t and my temples begin throbbing. I shake my head and take another drink, the beer’s warmth blooms in my chest, alleviating the headache.

I turn away from the dancers and search for Jerry. I believe I see him in the back, near the keg on top of a tree trunk. I walk towards him and finish off my drink. Might as well get a refill, too.

At the keg, Jerry’s not here, but I still fill my cup. Taking a swig, I peer over the moving crowd again. They begin to blur, their masks forming splotches of brown-red colors, smearing from one to another as though streaks of dark paint slither from one person to the next. Their whispered conversations become louder, but remain quiet simultaneously. I hiccup, look down at my drink. It’s filled with crimson mud. As though it burns me, I drop it, stumble back, nearly knocking the keg over.

What the hell is happening? The mud’s now only red beer in the grass. I look up. The crowd’s normal, their conversations not any louder than before. No splotches or smears, no snaking line connecting them all. I rub my eyes under my mask, readjust it.

Okay, okay—no more beer. Water, I need water. But there’s no other stations; no coolers.

A tall man wearing a black t-shirt and jeans walks past, and I tap his shoulder. He turns to me, looming, the two black eye holes in the twisting root mask burrow into mine. “Hey, is there somewhere I can get water?”

He takes a drink from his cup. He gurgles something, could be a word or a noise. Red beer dribbles out the mouth opening and under the mask, soaking into his collar.

“Is there any water around here?” I repeat, louder, unsure if he heard me.

He takes another drink, dribbling again. I think he says something before he turns away, melding into the crowd.

Screw this. I’m ready to leave.

Where the hell is Jerry?

My legs become heavy while I search for him. I can’t remember what Jerry’s mask looks like. They all seem the same, no matter the subtle differences.

“Does anyone know Jerry?” I ask helplessly to anyone close by, but none hear me over the loudening conversations, none pay attention. They stand in circles or rove around the bonfire, drinking from red cups. My head aches behind my eyes, and my throat’s scratchy. The smell of cinnamon and ginger, intertwining with my perspiration, overwhelms my nose.

The crowd tilts, the forest spiraling. I try to right myself before tripping on a root, but fall onto my back, my head by the dancers.

The star speckled night undulates as darkness encircles my vision. Blinking away the haziness, I realize it’s not my eyes being enclosed by darkness but the sky itself.

I clench the earth beneath me.

The bonfire’s flames rise, hanging from above like fiery waves, and lick the sky. The dancers’ robes swish like fluttering paper as their movements quicken. They sing louder, filling the air and my mind, quieting the party’s whispered gibberish. My chest hitches and my lungs catch as the dark circle in the sky becomes absolute; an abyss cut into space. Falling stars streak the sky, vanishing into the nothingness.

A white seam raises from the dark hole. Miles away yet I can clearly make out each expanding bubble. They pop, revealing tiny, crooked talons, which take hold of the seam and peel it back. Whiteness floods the void. My eyes widen as a giant teardrop-shaped head crafted from writhing branches and black leaves, roots snaking in red muck, surfaces from the brilliancy. Hundreds, thousands of dark-ruby eyes erupt from its cratered head, gleaming with firelight. There are no pupils, no sclera; just crimson emptiness. The head stretches farther, deeper towards the clearing. Swivels as though searching for something. Halts above the bonfire, towering over us, the forest, the world.

Stars explode within its eyes and starlight blares, plummeting everything in red. A tremor runs through the dirt I hold for dear life. The palpable air teems with heat, electricity, and an insectile chittering.

Dancers no longer sing, but scream.

Everyone’s looking up.

They take off their masks, revealing voids where their faces ought to be. Overpowering, rank spices waft and permeate the air, stinging my eyes, clogging my throat. I can’t catch my breath. My minds reeling, thoughts form and dissipate before I can catch them. Limbs deadened, numb, non-existent.

Umber ribbons swim from pores in the massive ruby eyes, dive, and slosh into the empty faces. Heads rattle, bodies convulse, as they’re lifted off the ground.

I close my watering eyes. My heart hammers against my chest. My bladder goes, and I can’t feel my pants become soaked. Silence abruptly crashes upon the world. Even my own hyperventilating can’t be heard.

I slowly open my eyes. There’s only the red light. Everyone—everything is gone. Something out of sight touches the top of my mask. Tugs it away. My vision narrows… Feels like my eyes are sinking into my face, something warm rising from my skull to take their place.

I crane my head back and realize that I will be, too.

AUTHOR BIO: Micah Castle is a weird fiction and horror writer. His stories have appeared in various magazines, websites, and anthologies, and has three collections currently out. While away from the keyboard, he enjoys spending time with his wife, spending hours hiking through the woods, playing with his animals, and can typically be found reading a book somewhere in his Pennsylvania home.

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