There’s a soft thread that binds together permanence and nothingness. This village, twinning with the absence of things; people, lights, the smell of food and smoke clouding out of chimneys; all the things that give a village life, gone, save for the barren husks of buildings scattered throughout the dust that cloaks the air. We’re currently in the world of the living, but only just. We entered the village at night, after traveling up the mountainside into the valley and reaching the gates well after dark. They were open wide, despite the lateness of the hour. In the village, there was no light to be seen, save for that of the weak glow of our oil lamps. The air, hot and humid, was choking with dust. We struggled as we walked, coughing terribly at times, our eyes dry and burning. A drug named Alice, administered with an eyedropper to the tear ducts, brought some small relief, moistening our eyes and bathing everything in a sullen green glow, eliminating the need for further use of our lamps, which we snuffed out accordingly. We continued quietly, passing one abandoned house after another, their thatched roofs caved in, large portions crumbled away. Stopping to look at one, I kicked a support post; it broke apart like a piece of balsa wood, exploding into a cloud of dirt, the awning it supported quickly collapsing onto the ground, forcing us both to dive out of the way to safety. Further along down the trail, far off in the distance at an elevation a great deal higher from where we were, we could see a green glow, emanating from somewhere off in the forest. Alice guided us toward it, intensifying our experience the closer we got to the septic pallor shining through the trees. In the forest, the air grew even thicker with dust and particulate, leaving a thin film of dirt upon our skin. Our partner and their appearance gave us a start—it was as if they were covered in mud—and for a moment we stopped and stared. Alice intensified the experience, making them appear as some nightmarish figure that’d risen out of the ground. Suddenly, they began to cough uncontrollably, and a cloud of neon-green dust erupted from their throat, spreading out into the hot night air.
That’s the last thing we remember before waking up here.
There’s a low glow from a fire in the middle of a dirt floor, casting shadows about the room that surrounds us. The walls draped with animal skins and furs, appear almost translucent, Alice doing her work in a way we’ve never experienced before, letting us see through our surroundings somehow, out into the thick forest that looms menacingly around the hut, slowly devouring the space between it. Our traveling companion is nowhere to be seen. In the corner of the hut squats an old, broken man, limp skin hanging off his frame like a wet towel. We sense him before we can fully see him. When he notices we’ve regained consciousness, he scoots his way further into the firelight. For some reason, the more we try to discern the features of his face, the less substantial they are, a sort of dark blemish or smudge where his mouth, nose, and eyes should be. Like the walls around us, he too is draped in various skins and furs, strange medallions eliciting a dull sheen reflected off the firelight. He draws a long, skeletal arm in a sweeping gesture before him, Alice slowing down time briefly, exaggerating the motion for added effect. When he begins speaking, his facial features come into focus and we see that he’s blind. His language is unknown to us, but Alice offers a crude translation as he tells his story. At one time, he was the village shaman. Many years ago, perhaps centuries, the village thrived, taking sustenance from the lowlands and surrounding valley, farming and raising cattle, fishing, and the like. Then, one year, a powerful drought took it all away. The crops went to rot, all the livestock died, and people began to starve. They then began to call upon the shaman, who’d gone largely unnoticed when times were fair, as is the way of things. One by one the townspeople came to him for help, and he did what he could, but nothing could bring the animals back, nor make the crops grow again, or put food in the people’s mouths. It was then he remembered an old spell he’d read in an ancient book once when he was but an apprentice in one of the neighboring villages. After he’d been initiated he set off about the countryside, helping those he could with his powers. He heard from someone his old master had died, so he returned to the neighboring village to pay his respects. His old master had died of a sickness of which there was no cure, or so it was said. Upon his arrival, he was told by an old woman that his master had left all of his belongings to him, which wasn’t much—a few rags and a couple of old tomes, one of which he recognized from many years ago. He thanked the woman and loaded his master’s old belongings onto his mule and returned to the village where he was born, constructing a simple hut on the outskirts of town, the one where we now found ourselves. Several years later, he said, the drought hit, and things in the village changed. It was only after he’d tried every means of magic to heal the wounded land and its people that he remembered the spell in the musty old book upon his shelf, brought from his master’s hut. After flipping through its pages, he came upon the spell and got to work. It was old, powerful magic that threaded the thin line between the magic of the dead and that of the living. The marginalia in the spellbook spoke of the importance of exactitude—one must overlook nothing or else face dire consequences. He soon resigned himself to working the spell and snuck into the village’s burial grounds late one evening, scooping up a generous portion of dirt from a fresh grave. To each villager that came to him—for they continued coming—he gave a chicken, which had been raised on a mixture of grain, millet, and the dirt he’d taken from the holy ground. The villagers, he told them, were to roast the chicken in an oven made of mud created from dirt they’d gathered on their property, then every family member was to eat from it, saving all the bones, which they were to later boil along with a mixture of herbs and spices he gave them. Once this task was done, they were to dry the bones in the sun then bury them in the yard. One by one, the villagers came and were beside themselves to receive such a meal from the old sorcerer. They followed his directions implicitly. One day, a powerful storm came out of nowhere and it rained for days on end. Afterward, the plants began to grow again; the villagers bought livestock and for a time, the village flourished. Although the drought was over, something in the land had changed. The plants grew and the livestock thrived, but the daily chores become a nuisance. Villagers found themselves sweeping more and more each day. Dirt would blow into their homes out of nowhere and no matter what they did, it remained. People woke in the morning to find dirt in their hair, all over their body, the sheets covered with it. They then returned to the shaman, demanding help. It was then he realized something must have gone wrong, although he couldn’t say precisely what. Things soon went from bad to worse and many of the villagers took to their beds with a sickness the old man had neither seen nor heard of before. Frantically, he returned to the neighboring village, demanding someone tell him what had happened to his master. None would speak to him. At a loss of what else to do, he dug up his master’s grave and opened the humble box he’d been buried in, but found nothing inside but dirt. So, the old shaman returned to his native village. When he arrived, the villagers were nowhere to be found. The dirt covered everything. He rushed back to his hut, where a lone man stood waiting for him. The man opened his mouth to speak, but all that came out was dirt, piles and piles of it. The villager collapsed to his knees, then broke apart, and a moment later the wind blew what was left of him out across the fields.
Alice had begun speaking to us once again. Late into the night, we awoke to find the fire nothing more than a few glowing embers, the shaman wheezing in a fitful slumber in the corner of the hut. Cautiously we crept outside, taking great care not to wake the old man. Once out of the hut, we reached into our pocket and extracted the eyedropper, then applied a generous portion of Alice to each eye. In an instant, everything around us began to glow, thrumming with a vegetative brilliance that was breathtaking in its immensity. Following the brightest path, we traced our way toward another hut off in the distance. It seemed strange we hadn’t noticed it before. Its exterior appeared much like the one we’d just left, yet when we entered, the fire took a moment to roar to life. A second later there was a flickering of light and the old man emerged out of a darkened corner. It appeared the holographic imaging system had been damaged; his silhouette flickered every so often as he moved toward us, creating a sort of juddering, strobing effect that was quite surreal. He stooped close next to us and said, Lift my eyelids so I can see you better, so I did, gently lifting the lid of one eye, then the other, until he uttered a grunt of satisfaction. Tell me about the dream you had, he said, and it was only then that I realized I had indeed had a dream. I’d risen in the hut—the prior hut—late into the night. The fire had burnt down to a few smoldering logs and embers and the ambient lighting was virtually nonexistent. I stumbled outside where it was raining, a torrential downpour. The second I was out of the hut I immediately sunk into the mud. Off in the distance was a yacht with stadium seating. Someone from the top of the bleachers beckoned me to approach and it was then that I realized it was riding the waves of a river that had overtaken the village, the waters continuing to rise as the storm whipped into a fury. I found myself seated on one of the bleachers surrounded by several old classmates and was offered a beer. An awning covered most of the seating area and we all waited, drinking and watching the muddy waters rise. It was then that I remembered an experience I’d recently had about not being able to digitally record a note about a recent dream I’d had. I was explaining to one of my old classmates that for some reason, every time I’d tried to record this particular note, the digital recording device had only delivered static or had skipped the note altogether, so the files on the recording device would read something like 12..13..14..16..with the number of the particular note in question being entirely absent from the folder. What was the note—or the dream rather—you were trying to dictate, asked one of my old friends. It was so strange, I replied, because I knew it was important although I couldn’t tell you why. There was a sense of urgency. The note—or the dream rather—went like this: I’m in a classroom where an oversized man is lecturing. On a dissection table lies two halves of a horse’s head, the glassy eye of the side nearest me gazing lazily in my direction. For some reason, although I’m unsure as to why, I know it’s of the utmost importance that I complete the dissection successfully. I begin dissecting and examining the head and find a tiny note inside the horse’s ear while attempting to remove the eardrum. I unroll it with a pair of tweezers beneath an adjacent microscope and am both delighted and horrified to learn it’s a note from my father, which says Hello son, I hope you’re well. I want to let you know I miss you dearly and although we can’t see each other quite yet we will very soon. Once you’ve finished reading this letter, eat it, as it’s been soaked in Alice. The classmate I was relaying this to made some sort of vague exclamation, then we both looked up at the very same time to see a giant Clydesdale off in the distance, running down a dock pulling a shipping container full of mud behind it. It crashed into the water then tried struggling up the bank for a minute before the weight of the shipping container dragged it down and out of sight.
The old man flickered for a moment, then disappeared without further comment. I retreated out of the hut to find a dozen more huts surrounding me, the village that had previously been there gone; only huts now remained.
In each hut, an old man told roughly the same story about how the villagers met their horrible end. In one, desperate to find my partner and leave, I asked him where they were. The old man in that particular hut merely scooped up a handful of dirt, let it sift slowly through his fingertips, and gestured vaguely at the space in front of him. Our supply of Alice was running dangerously low and we frantically applied the rest in hopes to gain some sort of insight into what to do next and were again met with the familiar, thrumming green glow. The village had returned and with the aid of the green paths that went from building to building, we were able to locate the points at which the cursed chicken bones had been buried. The only thing we could think of—the old men were no help here—was to remove the buried bones thus, perhaps, lifting the curse. So we did. It must have taken hours but never once did the sun attempt to rise. In those days the night itself was like an omen that we tried to ignore. We were able to easily see the veins and threads—thanks to Alice—connecting each building to the next. We found an old potato sack behind one of the homes and placed the bones we’d collected inside, along with as much dirt as we could carry, then slung it over our shoulders. We were almost out of sight of the village when we threw the bag of dirt and bones on the ground and quickly rushed back to the front of the village gates. There, we scribbled a hastily written note upon a sun-bleached placard we’d encountered by the roadside. POOR SOIL it said. See, back then, travelers heeded such warnings and would go elsewhere to settle down. That being done, we returned to our bag of dirt and bones and slung it over our shoulders once again. Perhaps in the neighboring village, there’d be a shaman that could grow us a new traveling companion. Of course, they’d look a little worse for wear. Christ—we thought, the fazing green light of dawn bearing down upon us—if they were ever really there at all.