Over the world, the forest looms.
At the start of September, they turn the cows in. Nobody goes to school or work - all hands are on deck, every able body needed, with all the other bodies shouting helpful advice from the sidelines.
Yoongi stands in his squelch-black coat, up to his knees in rainmuck that’s soaking through a hole in his rubber boots, and makes funny whistles in the back of his throat. His brother stands up at the top of the hill, in the dry. It’s the third day of rain, pretty much constant rain, and twenty baleful animals huddle together under a hedge, staring bug-eyed at him as he flaps around, a mud-coloured bat in the mud-coloured land. In the distance, faint over the noise of the rain, is the sound of the kid from the town - Jae - revving the quadbike.
And there’s a dog - of course there’s a dog, a scruffy collie mongrel tossing himself into the mud and the water with glee. His name is Pig, despite Yoongi’s best efforts.
“Holl--aa! Yoongiah!” Shouts his brother, Yoojae, standing at the top of the field, waving his stick in the air, conducting Yoongi without moving himself, “Shift them up!”
Yoongi waves his hands. “Chay,” he says, chay-ey-ay, a sharp little hook of a word that hundreds of years worth of Min cattle have learned to associate with being moved. “Chay. C’mon girls, chaychay.”
Pig barks. Jae, in the far field, revs suddenly - Yoongi hopes the kid hasn’t bogged the quad, although he might have, the wheels chunking the mud into the air.
Slowly, sadly, the cows move up the field towards Yoojae, who’s waiting for them. The rain is a constant, bouncing off Yoongi’s cheap raincoat, off the tin roof of the shed, so that there’s no other noise but the rhythmic drum of it.
The whole land is brown and grey. Yoongi feels bleached - washed clean of colour.
(It’s always a dull, rainy day when the cows come in.)
(Dull, rainy week.)
Yoojae hops the gate to chase them the rest of the way in, complaining at the top of his lungs about the wet, and between the rain and the clank of metal and the mournful hooting of the cows, it’s a cacophony of sad September sounds, the sound of the summer putting itself away for the year.
Jae bogged the quad.
“I didn’t mean to,” he pants, wiping rain and sweat and muck off his face, “It just-”
“It’s a sinkhole down here,” every time Yoongi takes a step, his wellingtons make a massive sucking noise, like they’re being pulled into a black hole. He doesn’t mention that it might be Jae’s own inexperience - the kid probably knows already. “We need it drained.”
The quad is stuck. Wheels churning uselessly, splattering mud up their galoshes, Pig barking excitedly every time Jae tries to rev it out.
“I’ll get the tractor down, once it stops raining. I think… I hope Yoojae got tea for us,” Yoongi stomps around the quad, internally cursing the bogrush and the mud and the rain. His brother can’t always be relied on for food, either -- often, he forgets, and Yoongi has to lead whoever’s been working over to his own house, knocking something hasty together from whatever he has to hand. “We get tea, I’ll hook the chain up to the tractor and drive us down, yeah?”
Jae makes a defeated little huff that could be a yes, but could also be a pout. Pig dribbles onto his wellington, the hot spit steaming in the freezing air.
Yoongi gives it up as a bad job and begins to work his way up the hill, grey-tones and black, up towards the pretty little yellow farmhouse Yoojae and his wife, Minji, live in. Roses grow on a trellis above the door, that sort of thing. After a couple steps, Jae follows, and the dog is off like a rocket, steaming through the rain towards the promise of food.
From inside the cattle shed, the cows hoot gently. There’s muffled sounds as some of them, still in season, awkwardly try to mount the others and are shoved off. Calves whine. A chicken clucks. Yoongi stands in the middle of the field for a second, looking between the animals -- looking for something, maybe. Nobody calls his name. The cows ignore him. Jae is speeding off with the dog, and Yoojae has long since abandoned them for his wife and the warmth.
He sighs and trudges on.
Over them crooks the mountain, and covering the mountain spreads the forest.
Yoongi’s been into the forest. Everyone has, at least once, and he remembers running up the mountain one April afternoon, running up the road past the little country school, past the houses of the slightly odd mountain folk, plunging through the trees.
He’d been running from someone. Someone had yelled at him, maybe, some kids from school, although that didn’t seem to matter as soon as he got through the trunks. Someone had thrown a book at him, and his nose was bleeding. He’d gone to Yoojae, first, Yoojae three classes above him, but Yoojae had told him to man up and pinch his nose, and so Yoongi had gone running, crying and bloody. Everything hurt.
That hadn’t seemed to matter, either.
The forest is quiet. The trees are foreign conifers around the outskirts, planted by forestry companies for cheap lumber, but further in they’re natives, ashes and oaks and sycamores. Birds mute their calls. Yoongi, in his heavy workboots and sensible coat, never remembers feeling as welcome as he did that day, as -- as though he belonged, stopping his nose up with scrumpled dandelion leaves, listening to the forest.
But of course, there are the rumors. The mountain folk, for example, who are all plain odd - their cattle are fat milking cows, constantly crossing roads here and rivers there, black and white friesians without a care in the world, coming at the call of the mountain folk, never having to be beat with sticks from the hedge. The mountain folk have their own school, a little building tucked into the outskirts of the forest - they teach their own. Yoongi talks to the mountain folk only occasionally, when he goes to market (Range Rover, cattle truck, gentle moos from the mixed-breed belgian blues and jerseys and herefords) and they’re there, selling their milk.
Never their cows.
The mountain folk all dress in stiff wax jackets and tight calfhugging leather boots. Some of them are young, with grey hair and jewelery, leading their cows through the shit-strewn ground with nothing more than a touch. Some of them look old, but always seem to be at the front of the audience when a rare breed is being presented.
The mountain folk and the forest.
Stay Well Away, they all said to Yoongi. Stay Well Away.
So he left the forest as quick as he could, left the chirruping warmth of the welcome, and ran back down the hill, his nose stopped up with leaves, and when his grandmother asked what had happened at school that day, he let Yoojae chirrup away about friends and games and girls.
Stay Well Away.
Minji has tea on the boil and a plate of buttered raisin scones on the table. Yoongi doesn’t like raisin scones, never has, but Minji never seems to remember.
The three men take their boots off at the door, Yoojae’s and Yoongi’s and Jae’s, and clip their galoshes off their jeans, shedding them like an extra layer of skin. Minji fusses about the mess they’ll make of the floor; as they troop in, downtrodden and soaked, they fill the house with the sweet smell of cow.
“Good spread,” Jae mumbles appreciatively. “Thanks, Minji-sshi.”
“You like it black,” is Minji’s reply, not really a question at all. She’s a Lee by birth, born in the farmhouse two miles thataway. Since they were children playing in the stream, their families joked about Yoojae and Minji marrying, and with a sort of solemn inevitability, they did. (They used to play family down by the river, and Yoongi was never allowed in. He wanted a turn being the one to get married, but Minji used to throw mud at him and say she’d only marry his brother.) (That was when they were very young, of course.)
(Minji is four months on, the soft curve of her belly barely pressing over her jeans - but it will.)
(Yoongi hates being the younger one, sometimes.)
“Bad year,” Yoojae says, leaning back in the kitchen chair with his legs crossed - he’s taller and broader and harder than Yoongi, with a dour sort of outlook on life, although he doesn’t spend half as much time on the farm as Yoongi does. “Bad year for cattle.”
“Daddy woulda said so, too,” Yoongi agrees just for something to agree to. Actually, it’s a good year, as good years go -- not that Yoojae would know -- but yes. Their father would have called it bad. The patriarch Min always said it was a bad year, even if it was mid-October by the time they turned the cows in.
“Yeah. Yeah, he woulda.”
“Da says the contractors’ll be out of a business next summer,” Jae says importantly, setting to work on one of the buttered scones. “Everyone’s got their own stuff, these days.”
Yoongi takes a scone and begins peeling the raisins out with the tip of his knife, dropping them under the table for Pig to snap up. Minji sighs, but she doesn’t say anything. Yoongi resists the urge to tug hotly at his collar.
“I reckon there’ll be jobs somewhere.”
“We still need ‘em,” Yoongi says. We. Always we.
In the will, Yoojae got the farm and the farmhouse and the herd. He’s the oldest son - he got it all. Yoongi got a little hill of his own, and the tumbledown stickshed house there, and all the money in the bank account. There wasn’t very much. A pittance, maybe - incentive to stay and help his brother. (Help.)
“Yeah. Yeah, we do.” Yoojae sighs heavily. “Too much work for me.” Shiny boots, clean face, pale arms. Yeah, too much work for him.
Minji slides heavy mugs of tea in front of each of them, tea turned orange by the addition of milk. “You’d drive a woman sick with that talk,” she jokes, sitting next to Yoojae with her own mug. “Did they go in easy?”
“Easy enough,” Yoongi shugs, and opens his mouth, but --
“Quad’s bogged, though. I’ll take tractor down and hook her out, when the rain stops,” Yoojae says.
“If it ever does.”
It never does. Around wintertime it’s always raining, and it’ll rain through September and October and November, and then the weather will turn colder and it’ll sleet through December. Back to rain in January.
That day, the rain never clears. Yoojae sits and drinks tea and looks out the window until eventually, Yoongi goes out to the yard, stomping down in the rain and the mud in his cheap raincoat, his holey galoshes. And it’s Yoongi who sits on the tractor, wet soaking through his jeans, Pig sitting at his feet, and reverses down the hill. It’s an old one, a make from the 70s, but its wheels are the only ones light enough not to bog, strong enough to pull a quad out. The hook is wet through when he loops it through the bars at the front of the quad; Jae sits astride it, ready to help drive it out of the mud, but it’s Yoongi and the tractor doing most of the heavy lifting.
“You’re going to mart tomorrow,” Jae huffs.
Yoongi nods, his hands tucked under his armpits. They’re standing at the divide of the road, where one lane leads to Yoongi’s tumbledown heap, and one lane leads to Jae’s gran’s house, where he spends some nights. “Are you?”
Yoongi walks home in the rain, alone - Pig sleeps with Yoojae and Minji - and he tosses his shitty raincoat and galoshes into the pile in the corner, along with the leaky wellingtons, and he slides the kettle onto the boil, and makes himself supper of a kind.
Cheese on bread, the cheese too soft and the bread too hard, and cold chicken nipped off the bone, and dried bacon strips. He drinks his tea.
He goes to bed.
It’s too cold, but he’s got used to that.
Yoongi’s Range Rover used to be his father’s, a jeep twenty years too old to be on the road, the thing kept alive by sheer tenacity more than anything else. Yoojae used to own it, but he sold it to Yoongi around the time he and Minji got a car each. It used to be blue, before the mud flecked it brown for good (and everything is flecked brown down here) and the seats smell of cigarette smoke, butter toffee, and cow.
Everything smells of cow.
They’re selling two heifer calves, demure girls that don’t bray when he leads them by the ear into the cattle truck at the back. Their mothers hoot and honk for them, but the calves are unaware, nuzzling at each other’s necks, touching each other’s soft, short fur.
Yoongi turns on the radio, then turns it off again.
He lights a cigarette, but smokes very little of it, just watching the ash trickle itself down into the little fold-out tray on the jeep. Smoking in winter makes his lungs constrict uncomfortably, the rain and the smoke soaking into each other and filling his body with smog - and it’s not like the market is going to be any easier to breathe in.
It’s the press of people. Press of livestock. The overwhelming scent of musky cow and damp sheep and lazy pig. People, and all of them asking after his brother, asking how the baby’s doing. As though Yoongi has any idea.
The town is a ten-minute drive away.
It’s a market town at the foot of the mountain, close enough to the mountain folk that they can come down, close enough to the foothill people that they can come up. Burrowed next to the river that tosses down the mountain, it’s a bustling little place, although all the inhabitants look itchy, like they’ve been trapped someplace urban by accident. Everyone’s a farmer.
Yoongi parks his jeep as close to the entrance as he can make it, and then sets about unloading the calves. He’s fashioned a halter out of orange twine, and it’s easy enough to loop the pair of them into it - the hard bit is making them walk through the doors, into the bustle, the overwhelming din, of the market day.
“Lot three, down there,” says an organiser, handing Yoongi a yellow slip and patting his shoulder, “Move along.”
Wordlessly, Yoongi does. Rubber boots, raincoat. Calves trying to hide themselves in the backs of his knees, afraid of all the new smells - they’re June babies, born in the fields, and their first experience of anything else would have been yesterday, when they were first put in.
Yoongi feels almost sorry for them. A little part of him, the one that went to university, might say he sees himself in --
Lot three is the heifer calves. Yoongi’s are crossbreeds, bred for beef cattle, so they get shoved in with the random calves - he’s given another slip that matches the inky stamp thumped onto the calves’ backs, and he’s sent on his merry way. All he has to do is be back by four in the evening, to collect whatever the calves will have gone for. The rest of the day is his, to do with as he pleases.
Down the mart, in the parking lot, someone is shouting. Yoongi lights another cigarette, slotting it between his teeth, and leans against the front of his jeep to observe - fights are rare, in the town, but always worth a watch. Not like he has anything else to do.
(He could go back to the farm and do odd jobs, but he feels lethargic, tired, and Yoojae’s technically the one that’s meant to be doing it --)
(Although he’ll kill Yoongi when he finds the jobs undone --)
“... A lamb, a lamb, we’re meant to get a lamb,” yells a tall, scruffy-haired man (boy?), his flailing limbs caught by a broader, smaller boy (man?) than him. “And some goddamn almond milk!”
“Don’t swear at me,” seethes the object of the scruffy-haired one’s ire; a short, fluid sort of a boy, his arms crossed over his chest. “I was going to, I was fucking going to-”
“Don’t swear at me,” the first one mocks.
“Tae,” says the boy holding him, a little desperately. “Tae, please-”
Tae shrugs himself out of the grasp, knocking the boy back a few steps; he staggers against an old grey landrover. Must be theirs. “No, I’m sick of you thinking you can just fuck around with stuff this important-”
Yoongi coughs and drops his cigarette butt on the ground, grinding it under his heel. The three of them whip around and glare.
And then there’s a beat of silence.
“I’ll get the fucking lamb, then,” Tae says. “Come on, Gukkie.” He tugs the conciliatory boy along with him, back into the bustle of the market, leaving the shortest boy to stand in front of the landrover, looking lost. Like a spare part.
Yoongi says nothing. Let kin attract kin, as they say.
Spare parts, flocking together.
Eventually, the boy trudges over to him, looking angry. “Gimme a light.”
Wordlessly, Yoongi holds up his bic lighter, flicking his thumb over the little metallic button. The flame dances precariously in the crisp air of autumn, closing itself out when the boy spends too long fumbling in his pocket.
“Sorry,” he says, red in the face. He holds up a wooden pipe, little teeth marks around the spout, tobacco stains around the basin, and smiles, although it looks like it takes a lot of effort, “Light? Please.”
Yoongi flicks it on again, dipping the lighter into the bowl until something catches fire; purple flame rises for a brief second, and when the boy drapes the pipe from the corner of his mouth, the smoke trailing from between his lips is a pale pea-green colour, like fog on a winter morning.
“Thanks,” the boy says eventually, leaning against the jeep. “Sorry about the scene.”
“It wasn’t much,” Yoongi mumbles awkwardly. He lights another cigarette just for something to do, then watches the white slowly turn to grey down the little speckled stem. “Were they your brothers?”
“Still. Was a scene. They -- they could be, brothers. Fuckin’ idiots, but I gotta love ‘em.” The boy looks at him for a long minute, as though waiting for Yoongi to fill in the gap. “Don’t say much, do you?”
Yoongi shrugs. He often feels - uncomfortable, around things that demand conversation, contribution, and it gives him the overwhelming urge to run away. Yoojae is the personable one. “Don’t usually need to.”
“I feel that.” The boy huffs, and there passes a rare companionable moment, pea-green smoke and the scent of cigarette and another smell, over the market musk, a smell like forest ferns. “I’m Jimin. From up the mountain.”
“Oh.” That explains something. “I’m Yoongi.”
“Hello, Yoongi,” Jimin smiles, (and he doesn’t ask how the baby is doing) thick lips crooking upwards, reminding Yoongi so suddenly and strikingly of a cat that he has to blink a few times to make sure Jimin is still… human.
“I’m… cows,” Yoongi explains, waving his hand at the market. His fingers are twitching. He’s watching, always watching. “I sell.”
“We’re buying a lamb,” Jimin says.
“And some almond milk,” Yoongi mumbles under his breath, gratified at the chuckle he pulls out of Jimin. The smoke from the pipe makes his head turn a little, and while smoking his own would usually ground him, he feels more surreal with every inhalation. The fog in the town has thickened, filling the parking lot with whiteness, and the pea-green from the pipe, and the huffs from Jimin’s mouth, and the spinning in Yoongi’s head. The smell of cows. Always the smell of cows.
“Hyung!” Yells a voice - Gukkie, the third boy - and Jimin pats Yoongi’s shoulder with a tiny paw. Hand. Tiny hand. Warm, and comfortable. And friendly.
“See you around, Yoongi,” he says, and it sounds like a promise.
Yoongi blinks owlishly. “Okay.” The promise -- a promise, or maybe it’s the voice, and he likes the sound of that. Jimin remembered his name, and he said it with sincerity.
He drops his second cigarette, and doesn’t bother grinding the stub down.
He feels odd.
Warm, maybe. Nice.
There is a deer - a red-stained hart, his antlers spreading, a star hung from the tip of each branch, each arch, his head holding up the sky, his hooves planting trees in the ground. His head is bowed regally, his body holding up the world, the sky draped like the most royal of capes along his flank, half-obscuring the fawny bloodstain freckles down his back. His eyes are pure black, the reservoirs that hold the water of the world. Around him lounge animals, as at ease with each other as anything could ever be.
There is a cat, sitting purring at the feet of the hart, pea-green smoke pouring out its ears.
A twitchnose black rabbit.
A grey fox, alert-eyed, playful.
A wolf, as pale as the moon.
An alert owl, fawny white, black speckles and creamy down.
All of them, save the hart, are staring at Yoongi.
And then he’s still in the town, leaning against his jeep. The fog has left - it’s four in the afternoon, near when he can go collect the money from the calves - and his cigarette packet is totally empty. A grey landrover is nowhere to be seen.
He collects his money. Stops at the shop for another packet of cigarettes. Turns the radio on; turns it off, annoyed at how impersonal the hosts are.
Behind him, the cattle truck rattles empty, the two calves sold to two farmers on the back side of the mountain. A few of the mountain folk got into an argument when Yoongi went to collect his money - there they were, all dressed in browns and reds and yellows, wax jackets and hats, snarling at each other over something.
As soon as he parks, it starts to rain, a continuing drizzle that leaks through Yoongi’s skin and permeates the whole place with a wetness. Pig barks a greeting at him over the farmyard, but doesn’t come over - Yoongi probably smells of the town, and of that weird stuff the mountain kid was smoking. Weird drugs? God knows. That’s probably what made him feel so weird --
But he’s back home now, and alone, and he feels normal again. Misplaced, a bit, but on his own, in his own jeep in his own head in his own skin, itchy and twitchy and uncertain. And the rain.
And so September has begun. Rain. Rain, and lots of it.
Yoongi goes home and puts the kettle on.
He left here, once, to go get his degree in the city - he’d been going to make a name for himself, become a writer, run as far away from farming as he could.
But then he lived in the city, and he got his degree, and the mind-numbing drudgery of it all, the oppressive feeling of being only one among many, was so painful that Yoongi had to return. He and Yoojae sold a few of the herd to pay for the student debt, Yoojae complaining all the while about how his cattle had to be sacrificed, and Yoongi set into writing his debut novel, preparing to blast himself out of rural obscurity.
That was two years ago. Now he’s twenty-five, and he’s close to being past it, and his novel sits half-finished, the skeletal bones of something he knows in his heart of hearts will never be any good.
Pig scratches at the door; lets himself in, curling up in front of the tinny radiator. It’s on, but Yoongi still feels cold. The rain sneaks in through the crooked window - Yoongi takes off his boot and throws it, slamming the door shut on impact.
He turns on the radio.
“--today, we prepare the food for our ancestors. Today, we remember the fires that burnt before us, the crackles that we saw, the smells of woodsmoke our families prepared for us. In the future we will renew the fires, extinguish the pains of the old year and embrace the hurt of the new year. All those with bodies able to join the hunt are asked to do so. Arrows sharpened. Minds alight. Today, we prepare the food for our ancestors--”
“The fuck?” He mumbles to himself. The radio display reads today fm but the voice is a gentle country burr, not unlike the voice of the kid Jimin he talked to earlier - and no radio Yoongi’s ever listened to talks about stuff like that. The warm feeling is back in his chest. He doesn’t --
Unfamiliar. Unfamiliar with it.
Pig barks at it. Hesitantly, Yoongi turns it off, his hands twitching on the dial, uncertain of whether to keep it on, but -- no. He crosses the kitchen, plopping a teabag into a mug.
And the radio switches itself back on.
“-- Samhain, advancing across the land. We will burn the fires. We will light the beacons. We will skin the hart and tie the feet of the rabbit with the tail of the fox. We will dance around the fairy trees. Today, we prepare the food for our ancestors--”
“Holy shit!” Yoongi knocks his mug over with his elbow and Pig starts barking even more at the sound of it. The plug is off at the wall. And nothing weird ever happens, ever, ever, ever around here.
“--As Emer was turned, so will we be turned. Fleet foot. Sharpen your arrows. La na Marbh is upon us, and to fool the dead we must take our places, make our masks. The hart will not find us this year. Today, we prepare the food for our ancestors--”
Yoongi scrabbles back across the room after he wrenches the plug out of the wall, but the radio just keeps talking --
“--And for all that need to come, defend your houses, fortify your mind. Yoongi, go to the mountain at the sunset. Honour your dead and prepare for the future and care for the pains of the past. Today, we prepare the food for our ancestors--”
Pig whines, covering his snout with his paws.
And oh, god, does Yoongi wish he could do the same. He wants to -- go somewhere, tell someone, but who would he tell?
The radio splutters.
“--Charting today, the newest hit: Where Shall I Put My Heart? What do you think, Fionn? Personally, I liked his older stuff better, but… we’ll let the audience decide! Here’s the chart topping record breaker!--” As the strains of a poppy boppy song begin to trail through the room, Yoongi stares in horror at his radio. Pig is crying in his dog basket.
God. God Almighty.
Yoongi, go to the mountain at the sunset.
Yoongi, go to the mountain -
He thinks of the mountain folk today, Tae and Jimin yelling at each other about getting a very specific lamb, about the pea-soup colour of the smoke pouring out between Jimin’s lips.
He thinks of the way they called each other, little familiarities, the way Gukkie had taken Tae’s arm, the way Jimin’s eyes had crumpled into a smile when he thought of them. Fuckin’ idiots, but I gotta love ‘em. He thinks of the contact, the touching even if it was in anger, and he thinks of the smiles and the nicknames and the little communal shopping list, like they care about what the others are doing.
Like hell is he going up the mountain at all, nevermind at sunset.
Like hell would he ever want to get closer to that.
As the sky blackens and bruises, Yoongi finds himself clambering into the jeep, locking Pig safe in the cottage before he starts it up. His lane is littered with leaves, falling like rain in the twilight. He’s being so stupid. He’s being so stupid.
When he closes his eyes, he doesn’t see black - he sees a deer, a stag, his antlers holding up the world, an array of animals lying at his feet. All looking at Yoongi.
What does Yoongi have to offer? He doesn’t --
His palms are sweaty, slippery around the steering wheel, and it’s with twitching fingers that he lights a cigarette, tipping the ash over his knees in his hurry to get it between his lips. The mountain road is dangerous, potholey and covered in the slip of rain and leaves, the forest already beginning to envelop him in cold red and orange as he begins to drive up the slope. The forest hangs over the world.
Stay Well Away, they told him, and now look at what he’s at. Stay Well Away from the warmness, and the belonging, and the feeling of safety --
He parks near the outskirts of the forest, his rubber boots crunching against the early-fallen leaves strewn along the side of the road. The sun is dipped almost below the horizon, flooding the whole world with violent red, like it’s been stabbed.
Stabbed. Jesus. What would the mountain folk want with a lamb and some almond milk?
He brought a coat, but it doesn’t do much for the warmth; he keeps one hand out of his pockets so he can ferry the cigarette to and from his lips, but shoves the other as deep into his coat as he can, shivering before he plunges between the trees. This is a bad idea.
They tell bad stories about the forest in the autumn time. About how the spirits come out, and where the fires come from, unexplained in the middle of the night. When Yoongi was younger, that was what all the kids scared each other with -
(He remembers Yoojae talking about the mountain ghost, some old woman that died in her cottage because her children neglected her, and how she follows naughty kids around to this day, telling them to be kinder to their parents. Yoojae used to pretend to be the ghost, and try to smother Yoongi in his sleep with his pillow, and then when Yoongi went sobbing to his parents, Yoojae would say it had all been a dream and his parents would be angry with him for waking them up so late.)
Jimin and Tae and Gukkie. His heart hurts, a bit.
And then the hart with his head to the sky, and the animals all looking at him. That cat had been so smug.
And then the radio.
He steps around a puddle. The foreigner forestry trees are slowly giving way to proper ones, the harsh green of the pines and the firs turning into the reds and oranges and fading greens of sycamores and oaks and aspens, trunks thick with age, branches drooping with weight. The occasional thicket gives him trouble, and the streams winding their steady way through the bracken, but for the most part Yoongi just walks forward, the dying sun at his back. Into the forest.
Why’s he doing something so stupid?
(‘Cause you’re fed up--)
He smells woodsmoke. Something in him keeps him from dropping the butt of his cigarette; he shoves the ashy mess into his back pocket instead, a sort of awkward respect for the untamed nature of the forest. Of the mountain. (At night. In autumn.)
He hears, suddenly, the sound of a fiddle. fiddlerol fiddledol fiddledae. The sort of playing that only happens late at night, fingers flying madly over strings with no sense of purpose - only a deep throb of the beat through your feet.
The bloody sunset burns his shoulders, and the fiddle is loud and the woodsmoke is strong.
Yoongi is in the dance before he realises there is one.
It’s a messy, drunk dance, the fiddler next to the bonfire, his face darkened in bloodyred shadow, dust rising from the horsehair bow as though the instrument itself is on fire. There are four others dancing - a skipping run around the bonfire, which burns purple and peasoup green, and they’re dancing and yelling and shouting without a care in the world.
And wearing masks.
“Yoongiyah!” Yells one of the dancers, and with a frozen shiver Yoongi realises who it is. “Yoongiyah!” Jimin, the person from the parking lot, with a crude cat’s mask fixed over his face, dancing around the bonfire. “Yoongiyah!”
Yoongi wants to back away, but tree roots have clambered through the bracken on the forest floor, wrapping around him - when he looks around, there’s a sycamore tree with all its leaves pointed his way. And Jimin remembered his name. Despite himself, despite everything, it makes Yoongi -- happy. Happy, in a way. They remembered his name. But then the tree squeezes tight --
You forget yourself, you’re in the forest at night in the woods in autumn at night --
They turn it into something to sing to, yelling Yoongiyah and Yoongiyah and Yoongi’s kicking against the tree branches, eyes wide with terror, trying to free himself, trying to run --
“I see what you mean,” says the fiddler. His mask is long and pointed, and when he steps into the light Yoongi realises that it’s the other one from the parking lot. Tae, with fluffy grey hair and a pointed grey fox face fixed over his own. His fiddle hangs from his hand, and with a start, Yoongi sees that it’s not a fiddle at all - it’s a tree branch covered in leaves, with a twig in favour of a bow. “He is.”
Jimin holds out his arm, and in the smoke, in the confusion, Yoongi can’t tell whether it ends in a paw or a hand. “Come on,” he says gently, like he’s coaxing a frightened animal, “Join us awhile.”
Yoongi shakes his head.
(This is what we see - pale limbs like frosted twigsnaps, and pooled black eyes full of pretty terror, and hair too long and windswept, and cloven hooves tied to the ground, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice, and the tremblebitten lips, and the fearstung cheeks - this is what we see.)
“Come on,” Jimin repeats. One of the other figures, someone tall and broad with a wolf’s mask over their face, lifts a stick right out of the fire and to their lips; the trembling trills of a flute ring out across the forest clearing. “Come on, Yoongiyah. We don’t bite. We wanna dance with you.”
Someone in a black rabbit mask tosses something else onto the fire, and it explodes in a crackle of smoke, like burning ink.
And then Yoongi is dancing, caught with one hand held by Jimin, the other clasped by an owl-mask; dancing around the fire, the strains of the flute hopping and popping, a crooked finger flying over the holes,
And then he’s laughing, and he’s never felt this happy before,
And then they are sitting, all of them, Yoongi held firm by the wolf-mask, forearms trapping his body to the ground, a pipe being passed around; the wolf-mask holds it to his lips, and when Yoongi puffs, someone begins to scream in overwhelming joy,
And then he’s happy, and he’s never laughed this much before,
And then they are dancing again, although this time nobody is playing music; this time there are six of them, all masked and hooting and screeching like madmen, swaying with the trees and with the fire and Yoongi is swaying with them, and,
and they are all naked, but not in a strange way; just in a way that feels right, yoongi shedding his clothes without a thought, because it feels right, because all around him is the feeling of joy and heat and burning copper wood, and the trees are singing and the music is pervasive everywhere and the beat of the drum,
and the joy in being alive,
and the joy in being alive,
and the joy and the warmth and the friends all around him,
and the heat of the fire, and the heat of the blood, and something bleating pathetically, and someone beginning to sing in a language yoongi doesn’t understand, and,
and then the owl is handing him a wooden bowl of liquid that burns his throat hot and red and orange and he passes the bowl along, both empty and full at the same time, and,
and then yoongi is dancing again, and the singing and the screaming and the music and the beat of the drum, and then,
And then Yoongi blinks.
He’s lying next to the dying embers of a fire. It isn’t cold, and the sun is still setting, although he’s sure it’s been hours since he first arrived in the forest.
He is alone.
With shaking hands, he paws through a pile of unfamiliar clothes next to him, looking for something to drape over his naked frame. There’s nothing that isn’t so holey there’s no point to it, so he stops looking; there’s a tree root looped around his waist, although it slithers back into the ground when he makes moves to stand.
When he stands, he realises how tired he is, and he would be falling -
Yoongi slumps gratefully into the arms of the whoever that caught him. Their hands are warm. The trees whistle; otherwise, the forest is quiet, save for the breaths huffing out of Yoongi and the whoever.
“I apologise for them,” the whoever says, one arm supporting Yoongi’s back as he lowers them both down to the forest floor. The fire bursts back into being, a warm, wholesome red, welcoming and homely. “They carry themselves away, I find.”
Yoongi sighs and shakes his head. “I-” his voice cracks, his throat sore and hoarse, “I didn’t mind.”
He shakes his head again.
“Can I ask your name?”
Yoongi looks up, then.
The whoever is a man. His skin is burnished bronze, freckles spreading from his cheeks down past his neck, and he’s draped in furs and cloths rather than proper clothes; feathers and foxtails and a rabbit’s foot around his neck. His hair is red, the red of autumn leaves. Parting just above his pointed ears spread a pair of antlers, an arm’s width each, moss and leaves hooked over the knobs and crooks and points of them.
And Yoongi skitters like a frightened - not a deer, not a deer, like a frightened - person, out of the man’s arms and into the littered bracken. “I - ah, let me go, let me-” because the tree roots have emerged again, wrapping around his wrists and ankles, pinning him to the ground. “Stop!”
“Stop,” says the man, his eyes full of concern but his voice full of command. He looks down on Yoongi, and Yoongi’s never felt smaller, weaker, than he does now. “Let him go. Here.”
And then he’s stooping, the man, and holding out a coat for Yoongi to slip his arms into; it’s warm, and worn, and slightly too big, and it smells of wax and gun-oil and fresh forest air. “I’m sorry. They-”
Yoongi shivers when the man smooths his hands over Yoongi’s shoulders, familiar and friendly and kind. “Who are you?”
“Didn’t they tell you?”
“Then,” the man is sitting, now, next to Yoongi with his arm around Yoongi’s waist, “Then call me Hoseok, for the time being. And tell me your name.”
“Yoongi,” Yoongi says quietly. His hands are shaking too much to button the jacket - Hoseok pulls at his fingers gently, moves them out of the way, pushing the buttons through their holes from the hollow snug of Yoongi’s throat down to where the jacket ends, mid-knee. Taking care of him without being asked to. It’s the strangest thing yet, even with the masked dance and the antlers -- Hoseok’s attitude. “And what are you doing here, Yoongi?”
“I don’t -- I don’t know,” Yoongi admits. He stares at Hoseok’s hands, at knuckles and muddy thumbs and orange-tinted fingertips. “Someone told me to come.”
“And you did?”
“I don’t… know why, but I did.”
“And here you are,” Hoseok says. He rests his hand at the small of Yoongi’s back. Always touching. “And still alive.”
“Does that surprise you?”
Hoseok hums. It’s a nice hum; it fills the air, and even after he’s stopped humming it continues, a big bloody splotch filling the sky the same way the sunset is. “I think it does. You have lovely eyes.”
And then Hoseok’s standing, pulling Yoongi up, his broad palms gripping Yoongi’s forearms, looping around his wrists. His antlers swing through the air, displacing sound and light, somehow the brightest things in the whole forest. “Let’s run.”
Yoongi nods. He wants to get away, still, but Hoseok says let’s run and it sounds like the most enjoyable thing in the world, and the forest is friendly and Hoseok is smiling at him and he doesn’t quite know why he wants to leave. He thinks he might know why he wants to stay. “Where?”
“Through the trees,” Hoseok says, tossing his head, a strangely equine movement; the branches split and tangle together, knotting in an arch over their heads, creating a long path stretching into the depths of the forest. “Where else?”
Hoseok hops from bare foot to bare foot. “Let’s run.”
So they do.
Yoongi is running, held in Hoseok’s hand, his feet flying through the mud and the bracken and the tree roots, and then it’s his hooves flying through the mud and the bracken and the tree roots, and when he looks to his side there’s a stag instead of Hoseok - a stag glimmering and shining and ruddy bloody red, eyes black, antlers growing with every second. The trees cry out. There’s the sound of the fiddle, the flute, the smell of woodsmoke, and they’re running and running and running and running
and the joy in being alive
and the joy in being alive
And Yoongi stumbles out of the forest, whacking his head hard on the door of his jeep. The sun is beginning to rise.
He is naked, except for a brown wax jacket that’s way too long. The soles of his feet are bleeding. His palms are sticky with woodsmoke, and he tastes orange fire in the back of his throat.
He finds his spare pack of cigarettes in the glovebox of the jeep, and smokes two just sitting there staring at the dawn. Birds are singing, although they’re muted by the closed door. He tips the ash down into the fold-out tray. He turns the radio on, but before it can connect he thuds it off again.
Then, he drives home.
Too cold. Pig isn’t there.
He expected that, though.
It's always cold, down here.