Bohemian Grove, 1916

The lake in the center of the woods looks shallow, so shallow that Mildred can see the long waves of grass just beneath the surface, as if some bucolic god had poured warm water across a lush lawn. Small lily pads float in clusters along the edges of the shore, bright pink and purple flowers pulsing from their emerald centers, crowned with an occasional plump bee. She knows it’s all illusion.

“I can’t believe I’m here,” Harold says. For all of his upper class airs, his voice is filled with genuine awe. “I’ve heard about this place. Everyone’s heard about this place. I just never thought I’d see it.”

Mildred smiles. “What have you heard?”

“Oh, the usual. Secret ceremonies, conducted by captains of industry. Profane rites, pagan rituals. Nudity. Lots of nudity.”

“Well, there is a Masonic lodge two districts over that holds meetings at the main house in the fall, but I’ve never seen anyone nude…”

“The grove is over there, in the middle, you say.” Harold pushes his long blond bangs back from his pale blue eyes. She had seen him several days ago, at some social gathering at one of the private estates. There had been many young men there, all handsome and interchangeable, but he had been the one, ripening and rotting all at once, willing to pluck the young mountain girl up, never realizing it was she who did the plucking. He never had a choice.

“You’re looking at the grove.” Mildred points to the small island in the lake’s center, almost indistinguishable from the shoreline. “We’re at the back. See the curve of water to the right? We follow that, and we’ll come around to the front of the grove, like a processional. It’s all very dramatic.”

“It’s so far away.”

“We could walk across,” Mildred says. She dips a naked foot in the water, bringing up several soft wilting blades between her slender toes.

“But your dress.” Harold’s protest is as mild and shallow as the waters. He’s wearing cream linen, and his calfskin shoes are spotless. “You wouldn’t want it all wet, now, would you?”

Mildred smiles. “You’re so very thoughtful. We’ll take the raft. Although, I really don’t see the point. I’m already quite wet.” She turns away, pretending she can’t see the blush staining his tan cheeks like little firestorms, can’t hear the ragged intake of his breath. So predictable, these city boys and girls who flee to the country every summer with their rich relatives, cautiously planting themselves in their vast stone estates against the edges of the mountain range, never venturing further than the neighboring property. They think they know the world. They have no idea.

The water ripples out in slow waves as they step onto the smooth planks of the boat: Harold first, then holding out his large hand for her to grasp as she follows. “Allow me,” he says, reaching for the long pole sticking up from the water’s edge.

“Please, allow me.” Mildred places a hand firmly on his upper arm, giving it a squeeze that becomes a long caress. “You’re my family’s guest today, and I’ve been rowing this raft ever since I was a child. I know all the deep places.”

Harold places a hand over hers. “That wouldn’t be very chivalrous, now, would it?” Soft popping sounds fill the air—the lily pad flowers, bursting open and releasing fat spores that catch in the breeze, dot their lips and lashes.

“Aren’t you warm? Take off that jacket. Sit down. This is a magic carpet, and I’m taking you across all the seas of time to a mystical land where you will never feel pain, never grow old, never die.”

“Is that the game you played as a child?”

“It’s not a game.”

* * *

Mildred keeps the raft close to the shore. The polished wood pierces through the surface illusion, past endless rivers of that which is not grass, down and down and down to depths she and her myriad sisters and brothers are not capable of fathoming. Only her parents have been to the bottom of the lake, and they will not reveal what they found. She only knows that the pole reaches the lake floor but she has never seen its end; and sometimes something tugs it down or pushes it shuddering back up through her curved hands, the sheer power of its movements frightening and astonishing. And so her grasp is nimble and firm, yet caressing, as if the pole itself is alive and must take pleasure in her passage. Perhaps it is. She’s never lifted it fully from the water.

Harold sits at her feet, long legs crossed, head back and soaking in the heat. The air is filled with rainbow-winged insects, and the spores mingle with their sweat and saliva. The hem of Mildred’s pale diaphanous dress catches and rises up, brushing against Harold’s arms and chest. She feels his hand wrap around her bare ankle. “Steady,” he murmurs. As if she could fall. The insects hum and drone, and the sun hits them full as she moves out from the shore, in a great spiral around and toward the front of the island. She smells of wood and pine needles and creamy pollen, and as Harold slides his fingers up to her knee, Mildred lifts her free leg up and over, brushing her foot against the fabric over his stiffening cock as she straddles him, her back blocking his view as the grove grow near. Not that he’s thinking of the grove anymore—both of his hands are on the backs of her legs, pushing past the delicate chiffon layers of embroidered violets and roses, up her trembling thighs to the thick curve of her buttocks. He cups her, his large fingers digging slightly into the flesh, luxuriating in so much heavy yielding warmth. Slowly, his fingers move inward, deeper, parting the wet tendrils of hair, sliding through the hot folds of flesh, pushing into her like some phantom love. Mildred lets out a long sigh.

“Little minx,” he whispers. “Where are your underthings?”

“Over there. In the grove.”

“What—what is that? God in heaven, what the fuck is that…” His voice trails off into silence as all around them the insects still.

Mildred loves this moment. It’s always the same. One hand firm against her ass, one long wiggling finger deep inside her sex; and when they turn away, look across the water at the front of the island—she can feel the shock traveling through their bodies into her own, shock and wonder and delicious spikes of icy terror pouring into her womb. As always, her muscles spasm and throb, and a liquid hot desire roars into sudden life all throughout her, like the autumn storms that race through the valleys, filling the empty buildings and lands with a joyous and terrible force and purpose they had forgotten during placid summer.

“What am I looking at?” Harold asks, his voice small, almost boyish.

Within a horseshoe grove of towering redwoods and evergreens, a massive statue rises from out of row and rows of flat slate rocks, as if some ancient colossus had broken free of earth only to freeze mere seconds before the moment of flight. Feathered wings bent down and back, ready to snap out and away. Horned ears, slitted eyes that run down the face and join together at the base of an obelisk-sharp beak. The body—claws and feathers and muscle conjoined in such a way as to make no human sense. Mildred sees flashes of beauty, of purpose and order in the maelstrom of flesh, but she cannot articulate what she actually sees to Harold, or begin to comprehend what he sees. Perhaps what they both see is not what truly sits there, alive and waiting. Harold crouches at her feet, pupils wide and black, waiting for her reply.

“It’s an owl,” Mildred says. “You see a wooden owl, surrounded by flat ledges of rock where theatricals and ceremonies are performed.”

She waits for the information to take hold in his mind, aided by the spores. After a pause, he nods his head. “Yes, of course. Of course.” His hand moves up to her calf, caressing it as if it reassures him. “An owl on a stage. Don’t know what I was expecting.”

“It’s our family mascot, the owl. And this site is very old. It’s important.”

“To you, I suppose.”

Mildred can’t help but laugh a little. “Oh dear, you sound so disappointed. Were you expecting wise and immortal men in gold animal masks waiting to induct you into some great society?”

“I thought there’d be more—mystery. You know. I wanted to learn a great secret.”

Mildred smiles. “What makes you think you already haven’t?”

* * *

The raft touches the shore, and the pole slides away and into the water without even a ripple. “No clothes,” Mildred says, and slips her flowered dress off in one easy, fluid motion. She steps back and stands on the dry earth of the island. “No clothes,” she repeats, her voice firm. The smile wiped from his face, Harold hurriedly slips off his rumpled summer suit. His gaze never leaves her body, the large brown nipples, the soft curve of her belly and hips, the thick russet triangle of hair at her legs. She stands with legs parted slightly, knowing the long lips of her sex peek out ever so slightly from underneath the curls, red and slick like her tongue. She watches in return, noting the lean muscles of his arms, the gold sheen of hair trailing down his torso, the strong curve of his cock as it springs out of his clothes. When he’s fully naked, she holds out her hand and he takes it, walking onto the island.

A slight breeze stirs the trees as she leads him across the bare dirt. He doesn’t notice the patterns of feet, the thousands of footfalls that have packed and smoothed the dirt down into a velveteen sheen. The owl looms over them, head bent just a touch, as if watching with those great black slits of eyes that almost seem like entrances to caves. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she whispers. “Is it everything you thought it would be?” Harold nods his head, lips moving as he mouths yes, yes, yes. They reach the edge of the rock ledges, and Mildred steps up quickly and turns around, catching Harold’s head with one slender hand and kissing him, while the other hand slides around his cock, tugging at it while her thumb gently presses against the head, drawing out silky beads of liquid. His mouth and tongue are hot and salty, and she suckles on him as his hands move up to her breasts, rolling her nipples between his fingers until they grow hard as the creature’s gaze. She pulls away, lowers herself onto the second ledge, and spreads her legs wide, her swollen red sex glistening and ready. Harold grabs his cock and moves toward her, but Mildred raises her hand.

“Not that. Not yet. First, with your tongue.”

She lowers her hand, leans back until she rests against the ledges, looking up into the creature’s face. Those eyes like lightning strikes, and Harold’s mouth on her nipples, back and forth as his hands run down her waist. His tongue sliding down, the feathery touch of his hair against her stomach, and then his hot breath burning her skin as he nuzzles her, breathing in her scent. That cruel sharp beak, as large as a human male, made to rip bodies apart like leaves and suck out the bones, and Harold’s pliant tongue works its way down and over her sex, his lips kissing and sucking. All that hot liquid warmth and suction; and the little bolts of pleasure quickly become waves, become wings cracking back and forth, gathering speed. Mildred cries out, and her cry echoes against the thick tree trunks and seems to spill out of the creature, and Harold’s tongue becomes a blur of hard motion against the slick firm bead of her center and she cries out again, screams as the orgasm hammers through her, taking full flight.

Harold raises his head. “My turn.” His voice is guttural, barely more than a growl. This is the delicate moment: Mildred sits up, grabbing his cock. He moves his body over her, as if anticipating, but she quickly stands. Up here, she whispers, stepping backward up the ledges, one slow step at a time as her strong fingers move up and down the thick, pulsing shaft. Poor man, he can barely walk, each step accompanied by a grunt or a groan, and just a little further, she implores, licking her plump lips with her pink tongue. And then she is turning him around, gently, maneuvering his back against the statue, against a spot as smooth and worn as the raft. All around and above them the trees rustle, sending showers of pine needles onto their skin. Mildred laps at his nipples, runs her tongue down the golden-haired groove of his chest, pressing her face deep into the trail of hair that widens below his naval. And then her mouth is working its way around the base of his shaft, wetting the flesh with her saliva as one hand gently squeezes his balls. Only the sound of her hard breath, his soft grunts, and the lap lap lap of her tongue, moving up and over the wet purple head. And then: she closes her lips, and slowly, methodically, squeezes his cock into the lava-hot grip of her mouth, clamping down harder and harder the further she works him in. He’s openly crying out, almost sobbing—she can feel the sounds vibrate through her jaw. It’s coming, it can’t resist, it’s almost there…

Harold screams. Mildred opens her eyes, noting how the feathered wood has shifted and pooled around his body, as if he’s drowning in a slow-moving tide of wooden feathers. He screams again: thin threads of blood travel down his chest and shoulders. Mildred can feel him trying to buck and break free, but it’s too late. She keeps her mouth and hands on his cock, working it back and forth as he moves further into the creature, as the creature moves into him. Poor boy, he has no idea what’s happening. His face is a frozen grimace of pleasure and pain, those beautiful locks of blond hair pull away from his scalp, and then his forehead follows, and then there is a muffled distant howling from deep within the wood, as if his head is already further in, far away from the arms and legs that are only now sinking into the strange ugly feathers that only look like carved wood,

And then there is only the rustling grove and the steady damp piston sound of Mildred’s breath as she removes her mouth from the engorged phallus extending from the statue. With fluid precision, she stands and grabs protruding feathers with each hand, then swings her feet up against the surface, and gracefully lowers herself onto the cock. Now it’s only her, and whatever is coming out of the singular remnant of the man. She flings her head back, looking up once again at the terrible fissures of eyes as she twitches her muscular thighs back and forth. The cock inside her is larger now, harder, burning hot. She takes her time, luxuriating in the feel of the being pounding inside her, even as the pain rises in equal measure. Back and forth, back and forth. She is in no hurry. The creature’s climax began when she mounted it, and it has not ended, and it is taking her with it, all the way to its end. Salty tears trickle down her cheeks into her ears, and little flashes of light gather at the corners of her sight, black lightning and stars that seem to rise up and coalesce in the deep cracks of the creature’s face, sparks of an awakening, antediluvian life. She closes her eyes.

When the creature cries out, Mildred bites off her tongue.

* * *

Shadows ripple over the grove. Insects hum again, and birds are gathering in the trees. Mildred sits on the top ledge, watching the light fade from the lake and the far shore. She feels tired and heavy, and her tongue will take forever to grow back, but she did a good job. The creature is satisfied, and asleep. That’s all that matters. To keep it here, in the grove, alone and asleep. Forever.

Her legs are stiff, they tremble slightly as she rises. She should be heading back home to her family, home to tell her parents and siblings, but… She turns, walks in quiet, small steps around the base of the creature toward its back, ducking her head as she passes under one of the bent wings. Mildred knows she’s not supposed to look, but she always wants to see how far they’ve gone.

From a distance, they would look like nothing more than carved feathers. Sometimes the men have the strength in madness or presence of mind to claw and push their way to the back. A finger here, the round cap of a knee there, a shoulder or two. And faces. So many faces, so many beautiful men and ugly men and old men and young men. Mildred searches in the gloomy light for a glimpse of Harold’s profile, the large sharp nose and high forehead that attracted her so. She sees so many faces, and she brought them all here, and she no longer remembers any names.

After a while, she turns away, stepping off the ledge and slipping with a crack of powerful wings into the new night.

About the Author

Wendy N. Wagner

Wendy N. Wagner is a full-time science fiction and fantasy nerd. Her first two novels, Skinwalkers and Starspawn, are set in the world of the Pathfinder role-playing game, and she has written over thirty short stories about monsters, heroes, and unsettling stuff. An avid gamer and gardener, she lives in Portland, Oregon, with her very understanding family.

About the Author

Jason S. Ridler

Jason S. Ridler is a writer, improv actor, and historian. He is the author of A Triumph for Sakura, Blood and Sawdust, the Spar Battersea thrillers and the upcoming Brimstone Files series for Night Shade Press. He’s also published over sixty-five stories in such magazines and anthologies as The Big Click, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Out of the Gutter, and more. He also writes the column FXXK WRITING! for Flash Fiction Online. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He lives in Berkeley, CA.

About the Author

Carrie Laben

Carrie Laben grew up in western New York and earned her MFA at the University of Montana. She now lives in Queens. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such venues as Birding, The Dark, Indiana Review, Okey-Panky, and the anthology Mixed Up! edited by Molly Tanzer and Nick Mamatas. In 2015 she was selected for the Anne LaBastille Memorial Writer’s Residency.

About the Author

Cecilia Tan

Cecilia Tan is “our genre’s premier pornographer” (says Walter Jon Williams)—the founder of Circlet Press and winner of the RT Pioneer Award and Career Achievement Award in Erotic Fiction. Her stories have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Strange Horizons, Best American Erotica, Best Women’s Erotica, and many many other places. Her 15th novel, The Initiates of the Blood, is forthcoming from Tor Books in 2017.

About the Author

Jesse Bullington

Jesse Bullington is the author of the weird historical novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers GrossbartThe Enterprise of Death, and The Folly of the World. Under the pen name Alex Marshall he is releasing the Crimson Empire trilogy; the first volume, A Crown for Cold Silver, was shortlisted for the James Tiptree Award, and the second, A Blade of Black Steel, just dropped in May. All of his novels have naughty bits. He’s also the editor of the Shirley Jackson Award-nominated anthology Letters to Lovecraft, and co-editor, with Molly Tanzer, of Swords v. Cthulhu. He can be found in the Pacific Northwest.

About the Author

Chuck Tingle

Hugo Award nominee Dr. Chuck Tingle is an erotic author and Tae Kwon Do grandmaster (almost black belt) from Billings, Montana. After receiving his PhD at DeVry University in holistic massage, Chuck found himself fascinated by all things sensual, leading to his creation of the “tingler”, a story so blissfully erotic that it cannot be experienced without eliciting a sharp tingle down the spine.

Chuck’s hobbies include backpacking, checkers and sport.

About the Author

Andrew S. Fuller

Andrew S. Fuller writes and edits horror, fantasy, and science fiction. His work appears in magazines On Spec, Crossed Genres, The Pedestal, anthologies FISHA Darke PhantastiqueSwords v Cthulhu, and several short films. Since 1999, he’s edited the fiction magazine Three-Lobed Burning Eye. He grew up in the Midwest, dabbling in heavy metal and theater, and now lives in Portland, Oregon between a volcano and two rivers, where he commits archery, design, and cocktail snobbery.

About the Author

Livia Llewellyn

Livia Llewellyn is a writer of dark fantasy, horror, and erotica, whose short fiction has appeared in over forty anthologies and magazines and has been reprinted in multiple best-of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s The Best Horror of the Year series, Years Best Weird Fiction, and The Mammoth Book of Best Erotica. Her first collection, Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors (2011, Lethe Press), received two Shirley Jackson Award nominations, for Best Collection, and for Best Novelette (for “Omphalos”). Her story “Furnace” received a 2013 Shirley Jackson Award nomination for Best Short Story. Her second collection, Furnace (2016, Word Horde Press), was published this year.

About the Author

Robert Levy

Robert Levy is an author of stories, screenplays and plays whose work has been seen Off-Broadway. A Harvard graduate subsequently trained as a forensic psychologist, his first novel The Glittering World was published by Gallery/Simon & Schuster and is a Lambda Literary Award finalist as well as a nominee for the Shirley Jackson Award. Shorter work has appeared in Shadows & Tall TreesBlack Static, and The Brooklyn Quarterly, among others. He is currently working on a television pilot as well as a new novel, and can be found living in his native realm of Brooklyn.