You can’t cry without eyes.
Surely, I thought, she could not see me staring. Yet as I stood there, perfectly still, the girl’s song stuttered and died, and she turned her face in my direction. She had skin so fair and white it was nearly translucent, and short hair like silk that looked even more colorless against the dark red dress she wore. Where her eyes should have been were two black, hollow circles.
For a moment it was almost as though I were looking at Kezia’s eyes on a human face.
That moment passed, for the girl spoke softly, in a lilting, musical voice.
“Are you a vampire?”
“Vampire?” I replied. “What makes you say that?” Despite her unpleasant face, I felt quite assured somehow that this child was not dangerous. Well, not quite a child- a creature in-between stages, you could say. There was something familiar about her that I could not quite get my finger on.
“You smell like blood,” said the girl, tilting her head a little. “But you don’t sound like you’re hurt.”
“So what if I am a vampire?” I asked, tilting my head back, though she couldn’t see me. “Are you frightened?”
The girl put her hand to her chin and considered this for a moment.
“No,” she decided, “I don’t think you could hurt me. But if I still had my stick, I would rap your knuckles for hurting innocent people.”
“You presume much!” I blustered. “Especially if you think I cannot hurt you. Pray tell, what gives you that preposterous idea?”
“Easy,” said the girl, a bit of bite coming into her tone. “You’re a vampire, and I don’t have any blood.”
As she grasped the air with one hand, as though reaching for a phantom limb- or stick- I suddenly had a horrible idea of why she seemed so familiar.
“What’s your name?” I asked. Too old- she was too old, and the eyes weren’t right, the eyes weren’t right, so I truly hoped she wouldn’t say…
My breath escaped me in a long sigh.
“What’s the matter?” asked Crina- Crina who was much too old, who had lost the catkins in her eyes. “Have we met before?”
“What are you doing out here in the forest?” I asked, aggressively dodging the question. “Why aren’t you with your mother and father?”
It was hard to read the expression on a face without eyes.
I hissed. “And all the rest of them? The village?”
“I don’t know. Nobody answered me when I called. Nobody from the village, anyway. But from the forest…” Slowly she turned her head. Beyond us the land sloped gently upwards, and in the distance the trees thickened: the edge of Muma Balaur’s territory, and the beginning of you-know-who’s.
So. She had killed them all, then.
I felt dispassionate towards the horror that Crina must have inflicted- they were none of them my people, they carried none of my cares. What I was concerned about was how much time had to have passed while I was locked within the tree. The change from summer to autumn- I had missed a season, very well. But the difference between the girl I had seen and the girl I now saw spoke of years, not weeks. Years!
It was nothing to a strigoi- not a few years- but, Kezia! Where had she vanished to?
The toad’s eyes gleamed like two little gold ingots from the leaves, observing me as I started to work myself up into a real state of fretting. Muma Balaur could have been watching through them, and if she was, I wished she could come over and let me give her a good shaking. How long had I been kept in that blasted cave!
“Are you alright?” asked the girl, as I chewed my nail. She reached out towards me with one hand, fingers stroking at the air. I jerked back- who knew what sorts of deadly seeds lurked in her fingertips? And yet as I did I noticed for the first time the great whorled scars that lay on her pale flesh, thick raised stripes that covered her arm like claw marks.
“What happened to your arm, there?”
She withdrew rapidly.
“A beast attacked me,” she said. “It cut me open in the street and left me there. That’s how everyone found out that I had water for blood.”
A beast- or a Bannik.
“Mum and dad kept me safe,” she said. “Even when everybody started saying that it was my fault everybody got sick. But they died, too. They got stiff and hard and stopped moving except to cry. And then they stopped that, too.”
Well. I could relate.
“You must really be a vampire,” observed Crina. “I said my parents died, and you don’t care.”
“I don’t see any point in pretending that I do,” I replied, though I was a bit startled by her boldness. “How about you? You aren’t crying or anything.”
“You can’t cry without eyes. But I suppose I wouldn’t anyway if I could.” She paused. “I suppose I really am a monster. I ought to be so sad. I ought to die from sadness. But I don’t feel… anything.”
“Hmph,” I said. “Give it time. You’ll wail with the rest of them. I know from experience, and I happen to be a monster myself.”
Crina laughed- it was an odd little laugh, unsure.
“Do you hear the voices?”
“What voices, now?”
“The ones that are telling us to come into the forest. They have been saying so this whole time.” She shifted, and I saw her bare toes curling into the dirt beneath her skirt. “You don’t hear them at all?”
“No, and I’m glad-”
“But,” said Crina, “but Kezia’s voice is there too!”
“What?!” I rather exploded forward, then caught myself before I grabbed her wrist. “Kezia? How?”
“I knew you must know her,” said Crina, a satisfied tinge to her voice. “I can hear her voice a little bit separate from the rest. It’s quiet, but it’s there too. It’s the only one saying ‘Don’t come.’”
“Where is it coming from?” I asked. “You aren’t lying to me, are you? If you are I shall rip out your-”
“It’s coming from that way,” said Crina, pointing towards the thicker trees at the border, blithely ignoring my threat. “I can lead you there. I’d be glad to have someone with me.”
The last was small, and somewhat childishly voiced. I gritted my teeth and looked about wildly, as though someone might spring out and snicker at me for their practical joke.
“Just how do you claim to hear her? Are you sure you aren’t mad?”
She drew herself up at this, giving me the benefit of the whole frail, wispy might of herself.
“I am not mad! But I am blind, so I have always been better at hearing things others cannot.”
That made a certain amount of sense, I had to admit, but it didn’t quite have me convinced yet. I strained my ears, and heard only the wind rattling dead leaves, and a few struggling crickets.
“Listen!” exclaimed Crina, making me jump. “There it is again- can you hear them? The voices?” She shivered, looking paler and more delicate than ever in the fading daylight. “They are saying come home. Come home. Only Kezia’s voice is saying Don’t come.”
I shivered too, though not from cold: a judder of anxiety. My instincts were plucking at me to leave the girl and her empty black sockets- couldn’t see the back of them, they were just empty– and get myself far away from here. Maybe hole up in some farmer’s attic and sip his family’s blood all winter long. Don’t come, was it?
“You’d better take me to the place her voice is coming from,” I said, shaking my head. “But we must get there fast, do you understand? That place is dangerous, and the only reason I’d ever go back in is to get that dratted Kezia-”
“Are you her friend?” asked Crina.
“I am her- oh, hush! We haven’t got time for that! How fast can you run?”
“I happen to be blind,” Crina pointed out with dignity, her toes curling and uncurling faster and faster in the leaves.
“Fine! You’d better-” I grimaced, I could hardly bear the thought. “You had better climb on my back, and I’ll do the running, while you do the directing.”
“Climb on your back?”
“Yes, my back; you realize that I am a strigoi, don’t you? I shall turn into a deer and let you ride me. You look as though you weigh barely a thing.”
“Turn into a deer?”
While she turned these words dubiously over in her mouth, I made the change myself, and thrust my moist nose into her palm. She gasped and pulled it back.
“But I’ve never even ridden a horse before!”
Deer eyes are not made for rolling, so I couldn’t perform this motion as much as I wanted to. I stamped a hoof instead. Crina hesitated, then groped until her fingers touched the fur on my shoulder. My flesh twitched as though a fly had landed on it; I couldn’t help it. But she did not appear to notice- an awed sound came from her lips, and she slowly laid both her hands on my shoulders.
“How- how do I get on?”
I worked my big ears in all directions- still no sign of whatever voices she claimed to hear, and then knelt down slowly. She seemed to catch my drift, and plucked up her skirt so that she could straddle me, her white bloomers peeking outrageously out from beneath her hem. I noted that she was heavier than I had thought, and that this was going to be a pain on my back, and began to rise- but almost immediately she scrambled back off of me.
“No!” she cried.
As a deer, I barked, and then shook myself back into a human.
“What?! What’s the matter?”
“The voices,” Crina explained, in a little gasp. “I stopped hearing them as soon as my feet left the ground.”
“Oh, now you are making a mock of me,” I snapped, stamping my own foot.
“I am not, truly!” Crina exclaimed. “It was as though they all went silent at once! And yet now they are back… I am not lying!”
“Oh, certainly,” I sneered. “In that case, what does Kezia’s say, hmm? Does she wish to tempt me back into that wretched forest?”
“I told you,” said Crina, her eyebrows raising over her sockets, “that she was the only one who- Oh, here!”
Without warning she snatched my hand in hers, and I jerked. Her grip was surprisingly strong, for all that her flesh felt like nothing at all: neither warm nor cold, it was exactly the same temperature as the air around it.
“Let go of-”
Her fingers traced my wrist, the motion eerily intimate; I blanched. Then one fingertip found my pulse, and…
I jerked free, grasping my hand and trembling. Crina’s hand closed slowly in the empty air, and then she dropped it back to her side.
“Did you hear them?”
It took me a moment to speak- that voice- those voices- they had sung from Crina’s fingers into my blood, right through the parts where I was most vulnerable. I felt dizzy.
“I didn’t hear Kezia.”
“Listen again,” Crina insisted, making another blind grab for me, but I leapt out of her reach.
“All right, I believe you, only don’t touch me again!”
“Hmph,” said Crina. “Then, if you really want to see her again, we’d better go! Only you will need to take my hand, or at least let me hold your skirt, else I’ll run into every tree.”
“Ugh,” I said, which summed up my current feelings quite nicely. “Fine, take my skirt, but if there’s any danger don’t expect me to stay and look after you. “
“I didn’t,” said Crina, which left me feeling insulted in spite of myself, and held out her hand, palm up.
It was some small consolation to know that I was still wearing Sorina’s magic clothes when I handed her a bunched-up portion of my skirt. Should any vine grow from her, it would not pierce the fabric. (They had also stayed intact for a much larger transformation- a deer- a fact which also pleased me.) But it still seemed rather dangerous having her stand so close, almost breathing down my neck. If I turned my head, I stared directly into her empty eyes. I should see something in them, shouldn’t I? Even just the back of her skull? But there was nothing but darkness…
“Which way?” I said, and she raised her arm and pointed straight towards Mother Forest’s trees.
How stupid of me was it to cross that border again? For anyone but Kezia, for anyone else, I was sure I would not have done it: I knew very well that I was unkind, and selfish, and perfectly ready to feed loved ones to the wolves. With garnish. Oh, but it was Kezia. If I never knew what had happened to her I should fret myself into starvation: no doubt about it. Anyway I supposed that she, being a golem, was not so much a person- well, she was that and more, truly, but in the sense that she needed- no, she was a golem that I had helped shape, so wasn’t she somehow a distant extension of my own self? Hence, this was actually a highly selfish expedition. No need to reevaluate my bad character.
As I ruminated, grinding my jaw from side to side in an unconscious echo of the deer, Crina stopped walking and jerked me to a halt.
“What now?” I said. We had barely made it halfway up the hill, just into the edgiest part of the edge of Mother Forest’s forest.
“Listen,” she said.
I was going to explain to her that I couldn’t hear those peculiar voices-but-not-voices without her touching me, and that wasn’t happening again anytime soon, but then I realized I really could hear something.
It was a wail. Childlike and mournful, it drifted back from the way we had come, rising in intensity and volume and making Crina flinch and put her free hand up to cover one ear. I narrowed my eyes, for I recognized the sound.
Speeding through the trees came the black cat, Noroc, caterwauling his head off; if I hadn’t already been standing up I could have considered my dead self raised. He was damp and draggled, his fur mussed and covered with bits of dead leaves, a dry twig poking out of his socket. He looked a wretched mess.
Noroc skidded to a stop just a few feet shy of us, and let out the loudest sound of all, and then fell silent.
“Well, you took your time getting out of there,” I told him, feeling Crina’s grip tighten on my skirt. “Are you coming?”
He paced back and forth a few steps, raised a paw, and then shuddered visibly.
“Cat got your tongue?” I asked, and then laughed at my own poor humor. His lone eye slitted.
“Who are you talking to?” asked Crina.
“An individual who has bitten me several times, and never once apologized,” I said, enjoying the increasing balefulness of Noroc’s gaze. “Now he supposes to come and fetch Kezia with us- except he can’t, poor thing, he’s too frightened of his old master. Is that it?”
No response from the cat, except to turn his head away and close his eye. I felt I had hit the mark square on.
“Well. As nice as it might be to have the extra eye, I think my two will do well enough. Stay here and ponder your cowardice. I’ll get Kezia back myself.”
He opened his eye and looked back at me for a very long moment, as though evaluating. I wondered what little calculations were passing through that furry little head of his, if anything even still existed in there. Finally he rose and, passing me a look over his small shoulder, walked back into the safety that lay within Muma Balaur’s dry riverbed.
“Let’s go,” I told Crina, stepping forward once more, and she followed me like a little dog on a leash.
“Who was that really?”
“Listen,” I said, picking up my pace, “when we get out of here we can chat as much as we’d like about him and every other thing in the woods, but we are in a very nasty place and I would like to focus on the things ahead of us.”
“Fine,” said Crina. “Only I do not think I, at least, am ever going to come back out of this place.”
I had no idea what I ought to say to that, so I said nothing. We walked in silence. The last few vestiges of the morning light were fading away, filtering their muted colors through the thickening canopy above us. A lone songbird was singing the same three shrill notes over and over again. There was a strong stench starting to prick at my nose- rich, loamy, rotten, and beneath it all, a note of sweetness.
Oh, how I had grown to loathe this beautiful place.
I noticed, as we tramped further and further on, that the trees on the outermost edge of the forest had brown leaves, ready to drop; yet as we got closer and closer to the heart, I saw more orange, then yellow, then green. The air was growing warmer around us as well, rising from the thick damp stuff on the forest floor to assail our noses with the stench of putrefaction and/or life. Crina gagged a bit- I suppose it was even stronger to her nose.
“A little more that way,” she gasped, pointing, still stalwart about guiding me the right way.
Any trace of autumn soon vanished: it was like summer had never ended, and I had woken up at the right time after all. If it hadn’t been for Crina’s older body behind me I might even have believed it. But surely the warm summer night that suddenly surrounded us was yet another witch’s trick. Like Sorina’s house. Only in that place, things had never felt quite so… real.
The sultry, humid air was beginning to weigh down my curls. I heard Crina stumbling behind me and paused to let her catch herself.
“Where are you?” I heard her whisper.
“Don’t do that,” I muttered. My throat was beginning to itch, and I laid a hand there, willing myself not to imagine things sprouting out of it. If looked as though I was in danger of that, I would run away, I told myself firmly. The chances that Muma Balaur and her dragon would help me out again were slim to none.
“Something’s wrong,” said Crina. “Something’s not right.”
“Oh, always,” I said. I had been eyeing each new tree with suspicion, but none of them were white, only ordinary oaks, maples, and spruces.
“I mean it,” insisted Crina. “Do you smell that…?”
My nose twitched. I had to admit I did smell something odd, something a little like woodsmoke amidst the strong wet stench of the forest. And up ahead, the trees seemed to abruptly thin.
“Be careful,” Crina urged, her head blindly turning this way and that, nearly pulling off my skirt with the strength of her grip. I put one hand on my waistband and towed us resolutely forwards.
One moment, we were deep within the trees, the next, I had stepped in grey ash. There was a great black scar cutting through the forest, just a jagged strip of emptiness emerging without warning and ending just as abruptly. It was as though some giant had knelt to sweep a fiery hand over the trees and crush them to cinders. But no giant had caused this destruction. As I took another wary step forward, the ash whirled around my feet and drifted over the edges of a long line of hoofprints.
Behind me, Crina was feeling around at the empty air with her free hand, her brow deeply wrinkled.
“There was a fire, wasn’t there?”
“Seems that way,” I said, idly kicking a charred pinecone. More ash flew up, making me sneeze. The cone rolled a little ways through the soot until it bumped up against something. I squinted. It was a little green sprout.
And it was not the only one. As the wind carried the disturbed ash away, I began to see little green specks every which way. The forest was already reclaiming this scarred patch. Even though there still remained hoofprints left by the culprit.
Pascha, I assumed. Was this the move Baba Yaga had intended to make? It didn’t seem terribly effective.
“Which way from here?” I asked Crina.
Without hesitation, she pointed across the scar, back into the trees. I grimaced.
That burned patch was not the last one we saw, as we moved deeper and deeper into the Starving Forest. Here, there, and everywhere, big and small, I saw more charred scrapes. Some seemed older than others, with sapling trees already sprouting from within the gutted logs, reclaiming what they had lost. None were longer than twenty meters or so. Against the great, closed bulk of the forest, they were cat scratches.
Still, as we moved on, I noticed a certain stillness setting in. The breeze, which had faithfully traveled with us beneath the canopy, had gone dead, and there was no insect noise any longer. Our footsteps on the leaves were now unpleasantly loud. And those had changed as well, from a wet rotting brown mush beneath our feet to a dry, reddish carpet of crackling. More than green now I was seeing red leaves, but not red in the way that leaves change during autumn; these were vibrantly red and clearly not about to drop anytime soon. And the trunks around us were fading from grey to white.
I swallowed. “Stay close.”
Crina did not answer. As we walked, the silence seem to hang heavier and heavier around us until I thought my shoulders might buckle from the weight. The red leaves over our heads seemed to screen out what little light there was, and yet we could still see: by some quality of the pale trunks around us, or perhaps something else, a cold sort of light still filled the space.
“I’m almost there,” Crina suddenly murmured, to no one.
“I told you to stop that!” I hissed. “Which way is it now?”
Again she did not answer me, and I turned back to look at her. Her mouth was hanging slightly slack, and she was just standing there, one hand still crumpled in the pleats of my skirt. Without eyes there was no way to tell where she had focused on her attention.
“Hey!” I said, and when that got nothing still, “Crina!”
Her mouth flapped a moment, then, in a slow, syrupy way she said, “Hmm?”
“What’s the matter with you? Which way do we go?”
“Just the same,” she said, still slow and dreamy, and released her hold on my skirt. “Just the same as we are.”
She began to walk, her hands at her sides, not even feeling for the trees. Yet she didn’t bump into any of them. I scrambled to catch up and grabbed her sleeve.
“Where are you going?!”
“Your home is out there! Not in here!”
“No,” said Crina. “It’s this way.”
Again she moved, with surprising nimbleness, and I had to scramble to catch up again.
“Something’s happened to you,” I said. “We’d better leave this place. Kezia isn’t here, is she?”
She paused, a frail wisp of white beneath the ethereal trees.
“Yes, her, the reason we came here in the first place!”
Crina brought her hands up and rubbed her temples.
“Kezia… yes… I hear her voice. She knows you’re here.”
“What? Don’t be-”
“She’s frightened,” said Crina. “She’s frightened for you, Gabi.”
My fists and my gut clenched up tight. I hadn’t ever told her my name.
“I know just where she is,” drowsed Crina. “It’s very near. It’s the place where I was born. But I cannot go there.”
“I must go to my mother. I don’t have any other choice. I must go home.” Her fingertips fluttered, hovered in the air near my cheek. “You shouldn’t go with me. I think it would kill you.”
My face was heating, from fear or anxiety or something else I didn’t know. “Your mother’s dead.”
“No,” said Crina, “only dying. And she wants me to be with her.” She raised a hand and pointed. “Kezia is that way.”
I followed her finger. She was pointing somewhat to the west of the direction we’d been heading in. In that direction I could see that the quality of light changed a bit, and that there were scrubby patches of green between the red and white trees.
“Well, that looks like a much more pleasant direction to go in,” I said, grabbing her arm- her bare arm. “Come on, come this way.”
For a little wisp of a thing, she managed to stand there rooted to the ground, immune to my tugging.
“You will!” I growled. “Something about this place has got into your head.”
Suddenly Crina turned and gripped my wrist tightly.
“Yes,” she said. “Listen to it.”
COME HOME TO ME.
I jerked away, scrambled a few feet back before I even realized what I was doing. The voice had thundered through my pulse, soaked into the crevices within my skull. I felt sick to my stomach.
“I want to help Kezia too,” said Crina. She clasped her hands beneath her breasts. “But I can’t. I have to go. I’m sorry.”
I ran my tongue against my upper lip, gripping my own forearms tightly.
“What are you?”
“I don’t know,” she said. A beat. “Not human.”
At that I could only manage a very weak, dry chuckle. The girl without eyes turned away.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Please tell her that for me. She was kind to me once. I’m sorry.”
I voiced no promises. The way that Crina was going, there were no more leaves on the ground, only dry, infertile dirt. And a sweet stench. I did not want to follow her there.
I turned back to the way she had pointed out to me, the grassy one that seemed much more inviting. If Kezia was there… if. She could have been lying to me. She could have been under the witch’s control all along, leading me to a trap meant to destroy me, or worse, subjugate me again.
But I was compelled to at least check for my poor golem. I had no desire to see her while away her existence as a slave again. Or, God forbid, if she had been destroyed… No, that was surely impossible. All I had to do was find her. Get her a bit of blood, in case she had been enslaved by the witch’s magic once more. Lead her out of here. I had no more bonds holding me back, and by god I would have no more. All I need was her. All I needed was her, and I was free again!
This thought compelled me forward like a sudden push, and I stumbled towards the green place, turning my back to Crina, trying to shut her out of my mind. She was no longer my concern, that creation of Mother Forest’s. I would not dwell on what her words had suggested. Only Kezia- I only had to get Kezia, and then run away.
I took on the shape of a roe deer again, for a bit of added protection. The golem that served Mother Forest hadn’t recognized me before when I took animal guises. Though I had a strong feeling that few true deer ever made it this far into the forest, or any other animals, for that matter- the grass was pristine, the tree trunks nearly pearly in their wholeness, and not so much as a midge was buzzing about to disturb it all.
Yet, when I stepped into the grass- tall and wispy, it was, tickling my deer’s legs- I heard something bleating.
My ears shot forward. The light was queer under the canopy here- almost like cloudy daylight, though I was certain the sun had gone down completely- and I could make out some sort of movement far ahead of me. The thin blades of grass stroked past me as I hesitantly stepped forward, perfectly silent, ready to bolt at any moment.
The bleating noise came again, and I twitched one ear back, because of all things it had sounded exactly like a sheep. A sheep, in depths of this most dangerous and wild forest, an ordinary sheep, how laughable was that-
I stepped into a clearing and saw a sheep.
It was nothing more and nothing less than your average sheep, as far as I could tell: white, wooly, working its jaws. It was standing within a near-perfect circle of short-cropped grass, mowed neatly around the occasional tree, and as I stared it let out another soft bleat and then put its head down to graze.
To say that I was baffled would be an understatement. I stood there staring at the sheep for a good long time, as it chewed, bit, chewed again at the grass. Now and then it would bleat for no apparent reason. I thought I heard other, distant bleats, but I tried to pretend I hadn’t, as one sheep was bad enough.
My deer’s ears and my deer’s nose worked dutifully, but I could smell nothing but trees and grass and sheep, and that peculiar sweet odor of the Starving Forest, of course. But nothing dangerous, or even terribly unusual, aside from the existence of the sheep itself.
Well, staring at it wouldn’t help me find Kezia, as much as I would have liked to solve the mystery. I decided to skirt past it and block it from my memory. The sheep raised its head to watch me as I edged around the perimeter of the circle it had grazed, chewing placidly with a distinct lack of intelligence within its eyes. I had to wonder: what kept it restricted to that circle?
Even as I thought this, I got my answer. With a particularly loud baa all four of the sheep’s hooves left the ground and it rose several inches in the air. I gawked like an idiot; now it was flying?
This illusion only lasted me a few seconds, and then I realized what was actually holding the sheep up. Protruding from its navel was a very thick green stalk, bent at an odd angle to the ground, and snaking out of sight in the cropped grass. The sheep’s feet kicked at the air, and the stalk bowed under the weight and let it come to rest on a different area of grass.
You would think that I, a strigoi, would not be surprised by the presence of any sort of legendary creature, but despite my experiences with things from pricolici to Blajini, I had still always firmly believed that the vegetable lamb was a myth.
Yet, here before me was a sheep, growing out of the ground via a vine attached to its navel. Now that I looked more closely, its coat had more of the texture and pure whiteness of cotton than true wool, and there seemed to be a woody element to its short legs.
It was certainly the oddest thing to happen to me that day (and perhaps ever), but at the very least I was sure that vegetable lambs were harmless. Tasty, too, supposedly, and with wonderful wool. Not that I had any intention of testing the theories; I had a golem to find still.
With more confidence, I strode right past the sheep, cutting across its circle (only the length of the vine tether at any given radius). The sheep paid me no attention, just kept cropping away.
It was not the only vegetable lamb in that part of the forest. There were quite a few scattered among the trees, which were only just thick enough to block out the sky with their canopies of red leaves. The grass grew everywhere, and everywhere the sheep cropped and cropped. Sometimes I would come to a circle that had clearly been made by a vegetable lamb, with no lamb within. Only a lonely little stump, right in the very center of it. I wondered who was harvesting lambs, and hoped we would not meet.
I came to one such sheep-free circle only to realize that at the center was not a stump but a sort of wizened white bush. It had no leaves, only crooked branches with sharp thorns which all curved inwards. At the center of it all was a sort of bright red pod, oblong and nearly as tall as I was.
My encounters with the sheep had emboldened me, and so I curiously stepped right up to the edge of the circle- then stopped, one hoof hovering in the air.
I had noticed two strange things.
The first was a mound of dirt or clay, lying on the far side of the bush, just within the edges of the circle. It had a reddish-brown quality to it that was intimately familiar to me.
The second thing I noticed was that within the tall red pod I could see the shadow of a human hand pressing against the translucent rind.