The Altar for Pan
by Sean Mulroy
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
All inhabitants in this glade appeared to be mocking him. They looked to be enjoying his frenzied flight through a world of ecstasy, nightmare and chaos. The eldritch owl continued in pursuit and, without understanding why, the boy suddenly grew strong, became fed up with the chase, and turned to confront his feared pursuer.
It was at this moment, when seeing the elemental force face to face, that the child understood the owl was not an enemy. The owl appeared to have grown in size by one hundred times since first seeing it. Spreading out milk-white wings in a welcoming gesture, the bird’s furry chest, pale as star-shine, heaved forward, and two breasts shivered in tandem with the motion.
Then the boy’s name was spoken.
He looked to the owl’s face, it was human-shaped and female. Besides that, it was the most beautiful face he had ever seen or dreamt possible. One of those faces you glimpse only briefly, most often in dreams but which haunts you for the rest of your life simply because you can’t really remember the face, only the way it made you feel. And, with that, the chimaeric owl clutched the boy’s shoulders tightly, though not with sharp claws or hooked talons, but instead with soft and sensual hands both effeminate and manicured.
The boy was borne away, the glade receded beneath his feet, and creatures in it all waved goodbye. Up above treetops, higher and higher towards the moon till so close the boy thought he would be swallowed by it, then, with a twirl the owl descended headfirst back down, plummeting towards the earth. It was all a blur until the bluff suddenly came into view.
“Oh no!” shouted the boy, but against the heavy drum of the owl’s beating wings, it sounded like a whisper. “Don’t take me there. Please, please take me home!”
Unfortunately, the white owl either wasn’t listening or must not have heard, for it changed its pace and swooped down gently and placed the boy right back where they had first met. As soon as the boy’s feet touched ground, he went to shout in his loudest voice, but Athena was already flying away towards the moon.
Again the moon only shone upon the bluff. Once more the forest was nothing except utter darkness. The boy took a step toward the woods, ready to brave it all over again, when noticing he had stepped into a footprint of massive size. It was shod, like a horse’s hoof.
This wasn’t here before, he thought to himself while scratching his chin. Who could have made this?
He looked around the sandy surface. There were more. Two at a time, as if a horse had been in the bluff, a very big horse at that, with large shod feet who also happened to walk like a man. The hoofmarks were mainly deposited near the altar, the altar for Pan. They were all around it, as if whoever owned the hooves had been dancing.
Then he heard muffled sounds and gruff indistinct words, all coming from behind the altar.
It was frightfully similar to some of the laughter he had heard under those bridges in the fantastic glade. However, this had no mal-intent. He circled the altar till standing on the other side and there saw who’d made the hoofmarks. The faun was old. His hooves were worn and chipped, his golden pelt of fur was coarse with streaks of silver gray. Two rammish horns which jutted out of his skull were off in color and had obviously seen better days. Yet the disposition portrayed in no way suggested the faun was unhappy.
The mythical creature clapped both hands together, kissed one of the stones on the altar and jumped up and down in delight, clicking rusted hooves in mid-air. Then he suddenly stopped and became very still, glaring at the moon as though it had spoken out of turn and offended him.
The faun grunted in a derisory manner as if in reply. He pointed one long gnarly finger at the pale orb like he was about to really let the moon have it, but then, changing his manner completely, put a finger to his pointy ear and lifted it upwards. After listening for a split second, the faun turned around as quick as a lightning bolt and stared directly at the boy.
Upon seeing the child, the faun arose to stand erect, even though the boy could see it pained him to do so. He pointed at the altar and then to the child.
The boy nodded his head.
The faun took a step forward and bowed very low in gratitude.
Not knowing what else to do, the boy did likewise.
The old faun then stood up tall again, waved one hand and started to make his way out of the bluff into the dark of the forest. Seeing the faun was leaving and, fearing being left alone, the boy ran towards him. In a last desperate attempt to communicate, he pointed towards where the magical glade lay then touched his own chest.
The wizened creature answered by shaking that big leonine head with a sorrowful look.
In compensation the Great God Pan reached into his scraggly golden fleece of hair and plucked out a vine from a tree that must have got caught there. He pulled two leaves off it with one motion then tied the naked vine around the boy’s wrist. Lifting up to his lips one ancient finger as knuckled and knobbly as the hide of an oak, the faun whispered, “Shhhhhh...”
The boy stared into the faun’s eyes, large as saucers, with pupils the same color as moonshine, his irises identical in hue to the sky at twilight. It was then that the child became aware of how sleepy he was and how hard it had become to keep his eyes open. The faun helped him lay back down on the altar, in the same place as before in exactly the same position.
Only once more did he point to the darkness of the woods then back at himself. But when again his head rested upon the stone plinth, the boy must have been asleep for the faun never did seem to answer.
* * *
“Howie!” came the voice of Whipple Phillips. “Howiee! Howieee!!”
The boy sat up slowly. He was still in the woods. The bluff was lit by moonlight, but the forest remained motionless inky darkness. Yet something disturbed it.
“Howie, are ya out here!?”
There was a light emanating where the voice sounded from. The boy stood up.
“Over here!” he shouted.
“Howie! Is that you?!”
The boy for the last time rushed from the bluff. His grandfather, holding a lantern aloft, soon saw his grandson stumbling towards him.
“Oh, Howie, do you want to scare your poor mother half to death? You know you’re supposed to keep nigh the house in the afternoon and be back before dark.”
Whipple took the child’s hand. It was at this moment the boy recalled the vine bracelet. He awkwardly felt his wrist where the faun had tied it, but nothing was there.
“You must be the worst boy I ever have seen for runnin’ off in the woods. You listening?” snapped Whipple Phillips.
“I fell asleep.”
“Well, I’m afraid that’s no excuse.” Whipple suddenly mellowed. “You are a courageous lad though, you know that?”
The boy shrugged his shoulders.
“You’re mother wants you back home real bad, but she wasn’t going to come traipsing out here and search. And, to tell you the truth, boy, I’m mighty glad I found you, not only for your sake. What is it you were doing so deep in the forest anyway?”
“Just piling up rocks, building stuff.”
They wearily walked along lone tracks, being guided sometimes by the lantern, sometimes the moon and, of course, Whipple Phillips’ knowledge.
“You know the way back home, Pa?”
“Of course I do. Wait,” the old man stopped dead still in fright. “What was that?”
The boy looked around but didn’t see or hear anything. He smiled knowingly and darkly to himself.
“Listen, boy... You didn’t hear it just then? A hoot hoot... Well I guess it was nothing.” They resumed walking, though Whipple was more cautious now. “Huh, trudging through these woods at night does strange things to the mind, brings back old memories. You know, when I was a boy, local tradition claimed Narragansetts and other Indians would meet out here for secret powwows and to perform magic rites. Great warriors, braves and shamans, people like that.
“I’ve heard tell, too, that certain settlers from the Old World involved in black arts came to Providence and lived among the Puritans. They pretended to be zealots but were in fact sorcerers, warlocks, alchemists and even necromancers. These mystics would steal away to the forests at night, especially when those unspeakable ceremonies were taking place, and befriend the Red Men seeking forbidden knowledge from them.
“Folklore alleges many are buried out here in graves covered with special markings and under mounds and such. It’s been said these resting places rise up at certain times and speak to people. All superstitious nonsense no doubt but, tell me, boy, have you ever come across anything like that?”
“I...” the boy went to answer truthfully but then rethought what he was going to say. He patted his grandfather on the back. “No, I don’t believe in that stuff. There’s nothing like that out here, or in this world, though I wish there were.”
“Hmmm,” grumbled Whipple portraying skepticism on his face. “If you really believe so I am somewhat envious. The thing is, well... Once, a long time ago, I knew a little boy who came out here with his schoolmates and found an Indian burial mound; or at least that’s what they thought it was. All of the friends agreed to return the next day and dig it up. But that night the boy had strange dreams, terrifying dreams which still haunt him. The very next day, the boy’s friends did return to the forest, but they couldn’t find the mound again.”
“Why didn’t the boy go and search with his friends?”
“Because he was scared,” answered old Whipple.
“Were you that little boy, Pa?”
“I still am that little boy, Howard, I’m still him,” said Whipple gripping his grandson’s hand a whole lot tighter.
Soon they reached the edge of the forest and passed through that portal, leaving the wilderness behind to keep its own secrets. Tall church steeples, gambrel roofs with curling smoke from chimneys, picket fences and familiar crooked streets covered the land ahead, to see each one was to receive a silent welcoming and well-known greeting.
This walk home with his grandfather was quite pleasant, but once on Angell Street that horrible feeling the boy had been dreading all day started to surface. Seeing the impending manor house loom before him, the feeling got much worse.
“Okay, we’re here, we made it,” said Whipple, chuckling to himself while walking up the front path. After opening the latch on the gate, he had to resort to pushing his grandson through.
The boy looked up to where the path led, and there was his mother standing in the frame of the doorway with her arms crossed, one foot tapping, a frown on her face and obviously waiting for him.
Copyright © 2016 by Sean Mulroy