(a usual interlude in an unusual life)
It’s a quiet night in early summer: the best kind of night for starting a long patrol. But, just now, any kind of night would do. Crossing the wide dead ground outside the village’s picket wall is never comfortable. Night or day, you can always feel, without needing to see them, the unfriendly eyes that follow your progress. Night or day, it’s always a relief to reach the treeline. The woods are strange and full of dangers, to be sure. But these dangers, at least, you know well how to face, and as always it’s as if you come more alive to them with every pace away from the wall.
It really is a quiet night. You need not listen hard to hear the soft rustling of tendrils as nearby suckerbushes sense your presence, and need hardly think about your path to keep clear of their reach. The soft thumping-sliding tread of a spider-thing is easy to pick out—not so close, by the sound of it, but it might be close enough. Half a moon from now, that might make this night—make you—not quiet at all, betimes—but your plans to that end lack somewhat of completion, and such beasts are among the most lethal in these woods when their time is not upon them. So, not without a little regret, you draw a small rattle from your belt, unmuffle it, and shake it hard a dozen times. Noisy, to be sure - but a sort of noise that almost nothing in these woods cares to be near. In its wake, the spider-beast’s tread sounds quicker and louder, but quickly fading, too.
Almost nothing—the answering rattles are soft, but distinct, off to your right and not nearly far enough away. A lot of them, too, by the spread of the sound! Lucky, you think as you drop your own rattle, that the forest floor is so soft tonight, because speed is desperately necessary now; the noise is a feeding call, and swarms not busy with prey will almost always seek out those which are, to steal a share of the kill. You’ve seen what they leave behind, and have no wish to be it; nor do you wish to lead them after the departing spider-thing, a sort of prey they especially favor despite the vast difference in scale. You have plans of your own for that beast, after all.
So, when an instant later you do move, it’s to the northeast, the start of a long curving route that’ll take you between the swarm and the village, and almost directly away from where the spider-thing went. She won’t be back soon in any case, and if the swarm does catch your scent, you’ll be well placed at least to run for the nearest stream - vicious as these insects invariably are, they do not deal well with water, and you’ll be safe there until they grow bored and go away—if, that is, you can outpace them there at all.
Taken all together, it’s just another night in the woods, the unexceptional start of another long patrol. Almost anyone else from your village would by now be dead twice over, or else not dead yet and wishing fervently otherwise—but you’ve been a woods scout for a long time now, and this for you is a better night than most. Certainly better than if you had listened to the elder and stayed—’home’? But there are homes and homes…
“You must not go back out yet, Emeline,” he told you, while his eyes looked everywhere but at your wounded body. “You’re too badly hurt,” he said, and did not even pretend to hide his distaste. Not for your injuries, that distaste - they are a part of what you do, and any other scout, at a time like this, would be cosseted by two or three of the village’s young men and women, called in from the fields behind the picket wall to tend to those who patrolled beyond it. Any other scout, but not you. Not for you the gentle hands to bind your wounds and soothe your pains. Not even your own family has ever shown you such kindness. No, it was not your wounds that incurred the elder’s loathing, but the body with which you bore them. You’ve never liked to think about why.
And so, as you struggled up from the cot and drew your tattered dignity around you along with your tattered clothing, you decided to start your new patrol early anyway. You did not expect him to offer more than token protest. You would not, perhaps, have very much minded being disappointed. You were not surprised when the occasion did not arise. And you have, after all, been hurt far worse than this, and long since learned to apply your own salves, tie your own bandages. Every woods scout who would survive learns before long how to hide wounds, how to ignore pain, lest the forest and its fauna eat her alive and screaming. There are wounds and wounds, pains and pains—but you’ve found neither sort much different.
Such ruminations fall away from you as you follow the rocky stream to the broad clearing where last year’s winter storms felled a vast old great-grandfather knot oak. Its death throes bore down a dozen smaller trees with it, and in the open space where its canopy once gave shade, there’s little more than grasses and saplings yet growing.—little more, but enough to make this place worth your while; here, after all, is why you started your patrol early, what you sought when you dragged your bruised and battered and bandaged body through the guarded gate in the picket wall.
But not to be hasty—however much you’d like to be. You crouch silently, wincing in place of a groan, just inside the ragged edge of the treeline, and put the pain aside, and inhabit your senses rather than your aching chest and belly and limbs. If there’s more than the usual danger here, you can’t afford not to notice it now, knowing that, once fully engaged upon your purpose, you’ll not likely be able even to notice danger, and less still able to respond.
You already know the swarm isn’t nearby. You stopped hearing them a good while ago, without really noticing—had they come closer, you know, you’d have instantly been aware. No tiny tremors of a spider-thing’s nearby tread, either, lovely great beast that it is—lovely, but deadly tonight, too. There’s a gentle breeze, softly scented with flowers and leafmold, caressing your ears and cooling your brow; your dark-adapted eyes scan the grasses, the saplings, the opposing treeline, searching for motion not in accord with the wind—searching, and finding none, beyond the occasional ripple in the deeper grasses of a suckerbush sweeping the ground for small prey, and those will be easy enough to avoid.
Yes, indeed—a quiet night. A perfect night - almost, you think, wincing more deeply as you stand again after a few minutes more of silent observation. But, then, that ‘almost’ is why you’re here.
It’s the work of but a moment to undo the ties of your tunic and hang it over the limb of a nearby tree, along with your pack and your belt. The lambskin trousers take a little more effort; they’re made specially for each scout, tight to the skin to avoid snagging, and it’s difficult enough to get out of them when you’re unhurt and can safely make noise. But by dint of sustained effort, eventually you are out of them. And for all that you can feel the exertion in every one of your wounds, it’s a wonderful feeling as always, as you let the tree take some of your weight for a moment, to have the breeze playing among the roots of your short fur.
While you wait for your breath to come back and your aches to ease a little, it occurs to you that, speaking to any other scout, the elder might have spoken truly. As beaten about and cut up as you came back from your last patrol, you really have no business being out again so soon. But, then, the elders don’t know as much as they think they do, do they? Certainly they know precious little of what wood scouts know, nor would they have it otherwise. Or is it what wood scouts know? Is it just you who’s learned so much about the…stranger…inhabitants of the forests around your village? You hear things, of course, and you say things, too, betimes; the other scouts love you no more than anyone else, to be sure, but they do at least respect your skills and your unstinting readiness to face the worst the woods can find to offer. That thought brings a small smile to your muzzle—you do not doubt that their idea of ‘worst’ differs quite widely from yours. Indeed, two scouts separately warned you away from this clearing, for the same reason that brought you here tonight. Surely, they can’t possibly know what you do…
But what they know and don’t know isn’t, after all, why you’re here. Wind recovered, you’re nearly ready—just to undo your bandages, but that too is more difficult than it might seem. On the one hand, they’re stuck and tangled with your fur in a few places, and you mustn’t make a sound as you dampen them from your waterskin and tug them painfully free. On the other, many things in these woods know the scent of fresh warm blood, and it needs special care to ensure that you don’t reopen a cut or a scrape and endanger yourself thereby.
Eventually, though, you’re free of them, and settling your weight over your hips, you slip silently through the brush at the treeline. There are meanders through the grasses, little trails and paths and detours between the thicker patches that harbor suckerbushes and things more troublesome still, and you let your eyes and feet follow them, tending always in the direction of the great fallen tree that bisects the clearing, while your large, mobile ears stand watch for trouble. Thanks to long practice and habit, you can do all these things and still leave the thinking, feeling core of yourself free to attend as it list, and the breeze in your fur is as delicious as the simple sensation of being mother naked under the million stars that spangle the sky.
After a moment or an hour, you stand within two arms’ reach of the vast trunk - tall though you are by the standards of the village, and even though it’s sunken somewhat into the soft earth since its fall, its girth still outstrips your height by a considerable margin. But you’ve no eyes for such mundane marvels just now; what you’re looking for is somewhat harder to spot, especially in the moonless dark, and—ah, yes, there, just opposite a tall stand of thick grass that’s exactly where you need one to be: the pale peeled bark, the discoloration beneath, subtle clues that give an experienced eye to know what lies beneath.
So knowing, you take a deep breath, another, then dig one hand’s blunt claws into a crack in the dead and curiously spongy wood, forcing them in and in until your fingertips rest against the surface. Wincing as sore muscles rise to the effort, you haul hard at the fissure. If you’ve picked the wrong spot, you’ll end up bleeding, or else part the still-sturdy wood suddenly with a sharp crack that’ll draw every predator in half a mile—
—but your experienced eye hasn’t failed you; instead of those mishaps, a patch the size of your chest eventually starts to separate from the trunk with a soft squelching squishing sound that confirms you’ve found what you came for. As the wood peels away, it lays bare what was hidden underneath; in the starlit darkness, even your acute eyes can’t perceive the brilliant red-purple mottling you know to be there, but the swollen translucent shapes of young oak dieners are recognizable nonetheless, and you smile again as the touch of the breeze sets their surfaces gently writhing.
It’s the work of but a couple of minutes to peel away more of the hollowed trunk’s surface. When you’re done, there’s a ragged-edged, roundish space just wider than your outstretched arms, and just taller than the tips of your ears. Everywhere wood was, there’s now an wrinkled writhing patchwork of bubbles as wide as both your hands, the softening egg sacs casting back damp glints of reflected starlight. And—ah, yes, just there, in the center where you started—with a series of quiet little plup noises, the sacs are beginning to split, each one releasing a small flood of thick slippery slimy fluid, and adding to the breeze a rich dark scent somewhere between fresh sap and rich earth and acrid nameless things. And giving issue besides to—
—ah, lovely, they’re perfectly underripe; the four flattish tentacles that jut a foot or so forth from each burst sac, probing delicately forward in search of physical contact, are only about as thick as your finger at their tips, and no wider than your wrist at their roots. Any younger, and they’d be too small to serve your purpose; any older, and their digestive juices would be dangerously potent. As they are, though…
But of the few among the elders’ sayings that you’ve found genuinely to apply to your unusual vocation, the most useful by far has been ‘better safe than sorry’. And so, before you set properly about your purpose here, you reach out one hand, first and second finger curled, and with the greatest of care let just a single one of those tentacles brush its slime-slicked tip against your fur. And—ah, yes!—it’s quick to curl around your fingers, but not too quick to see, and a single tug, not even hard, is enough to convince it to turn you loose again.
Well, no surprise—these are oak dieners, after all; it’s rotting wood they mostly eat, and that should hardly move at all. To be sure, they’re not too picky about whatever else might come their way, but they are no suckerbushes. No thorns here, no writhing tendrils to snap out with the force of a whip and drag unwary prey back coiled and already starting to suffocate. No indeed, nothing like that, and these aren’t yet large enough to do you any harm. Quite the contrary, you know, as you turn your back to the writhing secret liveliness you’ve exposed, and set your bare feet shoulder wide, and take one slow careful step back—
—and this is always the most ticklish part, precisely because it is ticklish, and you mustn’t move at all. They’re fearful creatures, oak dieners, despite their fearsome looks, and these are small yet; for the first minute or so, if you so much as twitch, they’ll draw back into their burst sacs, and you’ll have to wait for them to grow calm again. But what makes it difficult is that the light touches of their tentacle tips are all over you, wriggling along your back and shoulders, along the backs of your arms and into your armpits, teasing up your neck and at the bases of your ears, pressing ever so delicately under your short blunt tail and down your thighs and calves…you always have to close your eyes, and bite your lip, and hold your breath, and just wait, because sooner or later—
—aaaah… And this is why it’s worth the wait. Once the oak dieners, in their strange way, decide that something might be safe to eat, their tentacles reach out, lengthening in steady slow firm pulses, to envelop the object of their interest and draw it more closely into their grasp - and this, they are now doing with you. No longer are they just brushing their tips against you, tickling you everywhere at once. No indeed! Now they’ve begun to curl around your limbs, around your sides, pressing against your chest and belly, soaking slime into your fur as they pull you gently back against the mass. Now the shyer dieners, their bolder siblings having brought you within their reach, begin to touch you with their own shorter tentacles - shorter, but stronger, writhing slowly out along your back, out along your arms and down your legs, their firm pressure rising and falling in slow peristaltic waves as they fall into synchrony with their fellows, one tentacle expanding as those on either side contract.
It feels as if you’re being massaged by a thousand tiny tongues, each not quite overlapping the others, each working with firm pressure to mold itself perfectly against the contour of your body. That, while more pull you ever tighter back against them. And that, too, while more still writhe around your sides, over your shoulders, under your arms, between your thighs, into your palms…and it feels that way because that is, after all, exactly what those thousand tentacles are doing to you right now, and all you can hear is a thousand tiny squelching sounds as they move in the thick coat of warm slime that presses through your fur, now, to reach your skin.
And it’s wonderful. You can already feel the aches beginning to ease as the pressure begins to work them out. The effort of holding yourself upright grows easier, too, with every passing moment; stubby though oak dieners’ tentacles are, they are strong, and they bear a considerable portion of your weight as they pull you gently, slowly, through the hole you made for them in the surface of the trunk. Soon they will draw you entirely within, and you can rest in their gentle embrace as they work themselves against every part of you; indeed, they’re already starting, as the longer tentacles wrap around your hips, around your biceps, to lift you bodily.
As you rise slowly off your heels to the balls of your feet, the aches begin to go in earnest—even where you’re bruised the worst, ugly yellow and purple and reddish-brown sprawling beneath your fur, the pain is starting to fade, soothed away by a warmly pleasant tingling that spreads all through your body. Wood feels no pain, but flesh does, and oak dieners eat both; thus their digestive slime has an ingredient to make pain flee, lest live prey flee while yet alive—before the sessile diener can consume it. Unripe dieners, though, eat slowly; unrenewed, their slime loses potency too fast to pose a danger. You’ll bathe in the stream later, to be safe, but for now…
For now, where the slime touches your skin—and that is rapidly becoming everywhere—it raises the most delicate of shimmering tingling warmth, as if your fur were standing on end in the wake of a distant lightning strike. You catch your breath, teeth trapping your bottom lip, as the dieners’ tentacles complete their embrace—you remind yourself to breathe slowly, gently, not letting your ribcage rise and fall too fast, as that delicious all-caressing massage encompasses your chest and neck and stomach, beginning to work aches and bruises out of your abdomen and shoulder muscles, probing gently into your navel—pressing your breasts and squeezing your nipples in a way that kindles new tingling in your belly which has nothing to do with the slippery fluids that now coat your whole body.
Too, those tentacles are beginning to find their ways along your jaw, around your ears, toward your nostrils, and if you let them, they will in all innocence block your nose and throat and thus cut off your breath. But it’s a simple matter to keep them away from places they mustn’t go; the slightest motion of your jaw, a twitch of your ears, and they coil back in fright, leaving your face free as if the center of a large writhing eldritch flower. And as more tentacles wrap around your hips, delve more boldly beneath the root of your tail, slither slowly up your inner thighs—you know too that you could just as easily keep them from the places they’re going now.
You could. You could do that. But, you think, as you close your eyes to let the tentacles massage even your eyelids, as you feel the last of your weight come off your toes and know it’s finally safe to let all your muscles relax…Why stop them? Why frighten them away from where they so clearly wish to explore? Your last patrol was hardly satisfying in this respect, really quite a disappointment even before you tangled with those tree-fellers, and of course you were in no shape to indulge yourself after that…Why deny yourself now? Why deny them? They so like crevices, after all, warm safe narrow places. It’s important that they feel safe. And they are so marvelously gentle…
Gentle indeed, as you let out your held breath in a long soft sigh, as you feel those first tentacle tips slide into you. So slowly they move!—it’s as if they were deliberately teasing you, as if they chose to try your lust against your patience. But there’s nothing you could do to hurry them along, and their dilatory pace is in its way such a unique pleasure, so different from most of the beasts with whom you tarry. Predators all, they are—anxious to attend to every occasion as quickly as they might, lest prey escape them, or they themselves be made so, in their distraction.
And certainly such haste is not without its merits! But just now…oh, just now, it’s far more pleasant simply to rest in the close embrace of a double thousand thick strong tongues; to breathe slowly, gently, tasting the mixture of the dieners’ strange scent and your own rising musk; to savor that heat rising from your belly into your chest, spreading through your limbs to the very tips of your toes and fingers, a deep hot red dark counterpoint to the merry light tingling of the dieners’ slime; to feel the tentacles lengthen themselves so slowly, in such delicious gradations, past the lips of your sex slick with your fluids just as theirs, past the rim of your nether passage where their slime eases what would otherwise sting into a pleasurable growing fullness—you can feel them drawing you gently open, thickening against you and inside you in those steady slow firm pulses, and with every pulse growing just slightly longer, each time reaching just a little further inside—
You are finding it ever more difficult to hold yourself still, to regulate your breathing, as the dieners’ tentacles press ever deeper into you. They are gentle, but even more than that, they are so unfailingly insistent, and you’ve never loved anything more than that point when your lover of the moment chooses to offer you no more choice, that incomparable mingling of fear and commitment and certainty and pleasure and pain. But this—you could stop it in a second. All you have to do is move, and your thousand lovers of this moment will instantly release you—whether you want them to or not, and this time it’s in that knowledge you find the sudden tension that sings through all your sinews.
But still so slow! Wonderfully unbearable, deliciously agonizing, to be tortured with this ecstasy—the dieners don’t hear, but you do, and at the edge of your awareness you know that your breath has grown ragged, each exhalation a faint keening whine barely on the edge of perceptibility. Oh, you could howl, for all the dieners care. And you so badly want to! But you know you couldn’t hold yourself still if you did, and if you move, this will end. And so, in the remaining corners and fragments of your mind not consumed by the slow burn of pleasure that thrills through you ever brighter with every tiny increment of those tentacles’ movement deeper into you—
—more of them now, up from between your legs, around your thighs and down your hips, flattening against the mouth of your sex, everywhere writhing down firm against your soft slick pink-red skin, pulsing and writhing, their tips thrusting inside you alongside their bolder brethren, and—you can feel yourself beginning to spasm inside, matching their slow dreadful wonderful pace, as you feel your crisis begin to consume you not the usual white-hot flash of joy but something slower stranger stronger—and—
—and it’s too much, just too much, as if you’re suddenly on fire, brighter and hotter every second and you daren’t move a muscle but you have to and surely you must be burning brighter than the moon brighter than the sun you can’t stand this and it just isn’t stopping why won’t it stop please never let it stop—
“This, too, shall pass,” the elders are fond of saying. However wonderful, however terrible, all things do in time find their end, and so too even this fiercely unbearable ecstasy eventually begins to fade. But even this, you find yourself fuzzily realizing, it does slowly—more slowly than any pleasure you’ve ever felt before, and more gently too, not so much giving way to afterglow as simply blending into it, merging with it, so gradually that it’s impossible to tell when the paroxysm ends, and indeed you don’t bother trying.
With a small tilt of your chin, you convince the dieners to release your face and head, so that you can open your eyes and blink them clear of the slime—oddly thin, now, little more viscous than water, far too thin to stick and blur your vision. With a start, you see that it’s long after moonrise, silvery lunar light in the stand of grass like something out of a grandmother’s stories—and with that same start, you find your arms and chest and shoulders free, as the frightened dieners draw back from your no longer motionless form. You hadn’t meant—but you’ve been in among them for hours! True, no one awaits you outside the great dead trunk—you hope—but all the same, you hadn’t meant to fall asleep in here.
Such a perfect rest it was, though! For all that it’s what you came for, you find yourself nonetheless a little surprised to notice that you no longer ache anywhere. Not even that great dark bruise across your belly, where a tree-feller’s unseen axe-haft doubled you over and knocked your wind out before you got to your clutch knife and finished him with it—most of a day you feared that blow might’ve finished you, it wasn’t until you stopped passing blood that you were sure you’d survive it. Only two days gone, that, and now it’s as if it never even happened! You’re not sure quite what you were expecting from the oak dieners, but nothing you imagined was the equal of their reality.
—in that way, or one other, which comes strongly to mind as you shift your hips and twitch your tail, and thus encourage those tentacles that’ve made themselves at home in you to give up their cozy lodgings. How long it takes them to withdraw! And not because they’re slow—a couple of them must have made it all the way into your womb…not painful, though, the feeling as they pull free of you, just surprising and very very odd; the shudder and arch of your back you could not restrain even if you tried, and that’s enough to complete the task of freeing yourself from the diener’s embrace.
You don’t even stumble as your feet, for the first time in what must be hours, touch the earth and take your weight again. Indeed, before you can even think of what to do now, your body acts for itself—drawing itself up, arms over your head and up on tiptoe, into a long stretch that pleasantly strains your every muscle for a long time, and finally ends with you leaning comfortably back against the fallen trunk of the grandfather knot-oak.
Leaning, in fact, a little to one side of the hole from which you’ve just emerged, and from which a couple of dieners’ tentacles reach blindly out for you again. A tempting thought, that, and you consider it for a long moment, but…no. Not so soon, at any rate! You couldn’t stand it again. And your fur is all twisted crossways everywhere and absolutely caked with dried slime and runny slime and slime that’s still fresh enough to be slimy—no, not yet. A bath in the stream for you, and then back here to cover the hole—sunlight is harsh on dieners, and one mustn’t, after all, be rude to one’s lovers, especially not after they’ve shown you such careful and detailed tenderness—and then back about your patrol.
And as you start on your silent, careful way back to the treeline, you’re surprised once more to realize that you’re grinning. There’s nothing to say that you can’t patrol out further north, tonight and tomorrow…nothing to say that you can’t come by here again, on your way back in. Yes, you’ll have to go back to the village sooner or later; you always do, and it’s always just the same as when you left it. But that’s—oh, days away! And until then…
Until then—here in the forest, with all its hazards and horrors…you’re home.
This story was inspired by a very short toot. I might have lost the plot somewhat, or maybe instead I’ve found one; in any case, I do hope no one minds too much.
If you’d like to spend more time with Emeline, more of her story is here.
If you’re curious about the “oak dieners” depicted here, nothing very like them exists in our world, as far as I know. But they are inspired to a considerable degree by Clathrus archeri, the so-called “octopus stinkhorn”. If you enjoyed this story, but haven’t seen pictures of this remarkable fungus, do take a look…and then, perhaps, come back and read the story again.