The spell has been broken yet I am still dreaming. Bloodied and dazed I offered no resistance to the men who gripped my arms and lifted me from the dirt, then dragged me towards the fire and the strange woman whose song had led me here. I spit thick blood and bits of damp grass from my mouth and tried to stand, but the men jerked my arms back. One of them stepped in front of me and pointed, spoke orders to the others. His voice was deep and melodic, the sounds of his language like rocks rattling down a windowpane and falling into a vat of honey. He was naked except for a kind of mask or headdress that gave him the appearance of a monster, and the men who restrained me jumped into action. They bound my feet together with a rough, stout rope, then lashed me to a nearby tree, my arms pinned painfully behind me. One grabbed me by the hair and pulled my face up towards the sky. Hands forced my jaws open, and the masked one thrust a wad of something into my mouth. It was bitter and I tried to spit it out, but they now forced my mouth shut. Choking and sputtering, I managed to swallow the lump of stuff before I passed out from lack of air. Satisfied, the men laughed and relaxed somewhat, releasing me to my bonds. They wandered over to the fire and squatted around it, seeming to forget me entirely. The masked one was next to the singing woman, and they appeared to be talking in the manner of close friends. The sky above the clearing was awash in brilliant stars now, and they seemed to whirl and spin in disconnected orbits, as if they were drunk on wine, and as they wobbled and throbbed they spoke to me in the most delicious whispers, telling me secrets that had taken aeons to glean from the thin winds of the cosmos. I felt as small as it was possible to feel. My teeth began to twist ever so slowly in tight little circles in imitation of the distant stars. My nailbeds were hot and the soles of my feet itched terribly. I felt very concerned for the poor bastard I could see tied to the tree nearby, but my companions around the fire with me were telling the fish story again and I laughed as always when Meliota got to the part where Dinku fell out of the boat still holding the harpoon and was dragged so far out to see everyone lost sight of him, only to return two days later on the next tide, the ruined harpoon still in his fist. I strained to hear the rest of the story, but the buzzing in my ears prevented me from understanding what was being said, and soon I found myself trapped in the body of the man tied to the tree. I cried out for my companions, but they pretended not to hear me, and passed around pieces of dried meat to each other. Something important was happening, but I could not grasp the meaning of it. I cried and cried until I could cry no more and I fell into a kind of terrible sleep.
When I awoke, the singing woman and the masked man were standing before me and the others had left. The fire had died out, and the scene was dimly lit by the sliver of the moon and the wash of the stars, now still and cold and lifeless above us.
I tried to speak, but could make no sound. The singing woman slipped out of her costume and stood naked. She looked like a ghostly tree or a fish or a skinned fox or a blade or a piece of smoke. She pressed her body against me and her skin was soft and smooth and warm. She covered my face with kisses and touched me everywhere with a great tenderness and a consuming sadness. She placed her palm flat against my chest, and when she removed it the print of her palm was burned into my skin. The masked man stepped forward and drew a short, thick blade from his belt. He pressed the tip into the center of the mark left by the woman’s hand. I felt the blade cut easily through my flesh and come to rest against a rib. He worked the tip of the blade between the ribs like he was opening an oyster, then twisted the blade to spread the gap wide. The pain snapped me back to reality. I was suddenly cold and frightened, and I knew these savages were going to kill me. I did not want to die and I bitterly regretted everything that had transpired. But the masked man did not sink the knife any deeper, and the singing woman put her fingers into her mouth. She pulled a stone from her mouth, black and smooth, and before I could react she placed the stone into the wound in my chest. The masked man removed his blade, and the wound shut like a trap door, leaving little more than a thin, weeping line in the flesh. Abruptly, the woman turned and walked into the darkness of the woods. The man cut my bonds and I collapsed at the base of the tree, weak and trembling. For a long while I lay there in abject terror, afraid to move, afraid to lift my eyes. When at last I summoned the courage to look up, I was alone. Utterly, completely alone.