For twenty-nine uneventful nights, the Montana stillness was disturbed only by periodic fits of winter wind, the hoot of a hunting owl, and the distant forlorn howling of timber wolves. Gradually Eduardo Fernandez regained his usual confidence and ceased to regard each oncoming dusk with quiet dread.
He might have recovered his equilibrium more quickly if he’d had more work to occupy him. Inclement weather prevented him from performing routine maintenance around the ranch, with electric heat and plenty of cord wood for the fireplaces, he had little to do during the winter months except hunker down and wait for spring.
It had never been a working ranch since he had managed it. Thirty-four years ago, he and Margaret had: been hired by Stanley Quartermass, a wealthy film producer, who had fallen in love with Montana and wanted a second home there. No animals or crops were raised for profit, the ranch was strictly a secluded hideaway… Quartermass loved horses, so he built a comfortable, heated stable with ten stalls a hundred yards south of the house. He spent about two months per year at the ranch, in one- and two-week visits, and it was Eduardo’s duty, in the producer’s absence, to ensure that the horses received first-rate care and plenty of exercise. Tending to the animals and keeping the property in good repair had constituted the largest part of his job, and Margaret had been the housekeeper.
Until eight years ago, Eduardo and Margaret had lived in the cozy, two-bedroom, single-story caretaker’s house. That fieldstone structure stood eighty or ninety yards behind-and due west of-the main house, cloistered among pines at the edge of the higher woods. Tommy, their only child, had been raised there until city life exerted its fatal attraction when he was eighteen.
When Stanley Quartermass died in a private-plane crash, Eduardo and Margaret had been surprised to learn that the ranch had been left to them, along with sufficient funds to allow immediate retirement. The producer had taken care of his four ex-wives while he was alive and had fathered no children from any of his marriages, so he used the greater part of his estate to provide generously for key employees.
They had sold the horses, closed up the caretaker’s house, and moved into the Victorian-style main house, with its gables, decorative shutters, scalloped eaves, and wide porches. It felt strange to be a person of property, but the security was welcome even-or perhaps especially-when it came late in life.
Now Eduardo was a widowed retiree with plenty of security but with too little work to occupy him. And with too many strange thoughts preying on his mind Luminous trees
On three occasions during March, he drove his Jeep Cherokee into Eagle’s Roost, the nearest town. He ate at Jasper’s Diner because he liked their Salisbury steak, home fries, and pepper slaw. He bought magazines and a few paperback books at the High Plains Pharmacy, and he shopped for groceries at the only supermarket. His ranch was just sixteen miles from Eagle’s Roost, so he could have gone daily if he’d wished, but three times a month was usually enough. The town was small, three to four thousand souls, however, even in its isolation, it was too much a part of the modern world to appeal to a man as accustomed to rural peace as he was.
Each time he’d gone shopping, he’d considered stopping at the county sheriff’s substation to report the peculiar noise and strange lights in the woods. But he was sure the deputy would figure him for an old fool and do nothing but file the report in a folder labeled CRACKPOTS.
In the third week of March, spring officially arrived-and the following day a storm put down eight inches of new snow. Winter was not quick to relinquish its grasp there on the eastern slopes of the Rockies.
He took daily walks, as had been his habit all his life, but he stayed on the long driveway, which he plowed himself after each snow, or he crossed the open fields south of the house and stables. He avoided the.lower woods, which lay east and downhill from the house, but he also stayed away from those to the north and even the higher forests to the west.
His cowardice irritated him, not least of all because he was unable to understand it. He’d always been an advocate of reason and logic, always said there was too little of either in the world. He was scornful of people who operated more from emotion than from intellect.
But reason failed him now, and logic could not overcome the instinctual awareness of danger that caused him to avoid the trees and the perpetual twilight under their boughs.
By the end of March, he began to think that the phenomenon had been a singular occurrence without notable consequences. A rare but natural event. Perhaps an electromagnetic disturbance of some kind. No more threat to him than a summer thunderstorm.
On April first, he unloaded the two rifles and two shotguns. After cleaning them, he returned the guns to the cabinet in the study.
However, still slightly uneasy, he kept the.22 target pistol on his nightstand. It didn’t pack a tremendous punch but, loaded with hollow-point cartridges, it could do some damage.
In the dark hours of the morning of April fourth, Eduardo was awakened by the low throbbing that swelled and faded, swelled and faded. As in early March, that pulsating sound was accompanied by an eerie electronic oscillation.
He sat straight up in bed, blinking at the window. During the three years since Margaret had died, he’d not slept in the master bedroom at the front of the house, which they had shared. Instead, he bunked down in one of two back bedrooms. Consequently, the window faced west, a hundred and eighty degrees around the compass from the eastern woods where he had seen the strange light.
The night sky was deep and black beyond the window.
The Stiffel lamp on the nightstand had a pull-chain instead of a thumb switch.
Just before he turned it on, he had the feeling that something was in the room with him, something he would be better off not seeing. He hesitated, fingers tightly pinching the metal beads of the pull.
Intently he searched the darkness, his heart pounding, as if he had wakened into a nightmare replete with a monster. When at last he tugged the chain, however, the light revealed that he was alone.
He picked up his wristwatch from the nightstand and checked the time.
Nineteen minutes past one o’clock.
He threw off the covers and got out of bed. He was in his long underwear. His blue jeans and a flannel shirt were close at hand,folded over the back of an armchair, beside which stood a pair of boots. He was already wearing socks, because his feet often got cold during the night if he slept without them.
The sound was louder than it had been a month before, and it pulsed through the house with noticeably greater effect than before. In March, Eduardo had experienced a sense of pressure along with the rhythmic pounding- which, like the sound, crested repeatedly in a series of waves. Now the pressure had increased dramatically. He didn’t merely sense it but felt it, indescribably different from the pressure of turbulent air, more like the invisible tides of a cold sea washing across his body.
By the time he hurriedly dressed and snatched the loaded.22 pistol from the nightstand, the pull-chain was swinging wildly and clinking against the burnished brass body of the lamp. The windowpanes vibrated. The paintings rattled against the walls, askew on their wires.
He rushed downstairs into the foyer, where there was no need to switch on a light. In the front door, the beveled edges of the leaded panes in the oval window sparkled with reflections of the mysterious glow outside. It was far brighter than it had been the previous month. The bevels broke down the amber radiance into all the colors of the spectrum, projecting bright prismatic patterns of blue and green and yellow and red across the ceiling and walls, so it seemed as if he was in a church with stained-glass murals.
In the dark living room to his left, where no light penetrated from outside because the drapes were drawn, a collection of crystal paperweights and other bibelots rattled and clinked against the end tables on which they stood and against one another. Porcelains vibrated on the glass shelves of a display cabinet.
To his right, in the book-lined study, the marble-and-brass desk set bounced on the blotter, a pencil drawer popped open and banged shut in time with the pressure waves, and the executive chair behind the desk wobbled around enough to make its wheels creak.
As Eduardo opened the front door, most of the spots and spears of colored light flew away, vanished as if into another dimension, and the rest fled to the right-hand wall of the foyer, where they melted together in a vibrant mosaic.
The woods were luminous precisely where they had been luminous last month. The amber glow emanated from the same group of closely packed trees and from the ground beneath, as if the evergreen needles and cones and bark and dirt and stones and snow were the incandescent elements of a lamp, shining brightly without being consumed. This time the light was more dazzling than before, just as the throbbing was louder and the waves of pressure more forceful.
He found himself at the head of the steps but did not remember exiting the house or crossing the porch. He looked back and saw that he had closed the front door behind him.
Punishing waves of bass sound throbbed through the night at the rate of.perhaps thirty a minute, but his heart was beating six times faster.
He wanted to turn and run back into the house.
He looked down at the pistol in his hand. He wished the shotgun had been loaded and beside his bed.
When he raised his head and turned his eyes away from the gun, he was startled to see that the woods had moved closer to him. The glowing trees loomed.
Then he realized that he, not the woods, had moved. He glanced back again and saw the house thirty to forty feet behind him. He had descended the steps without being aware of it. His tracks marred the snow.
“No,” he said shakily The swelling sound was like a surf with an undertow that pulled him relentlessly from the safety of the shore.
The ululant electronic wail seemed like a siren’s song, penetrating him, speaking to him on a level so deep that he seemed to understand the message without hearing the words, a music in his blood, luring him toward the cold fire in the woods.
His thoughts grew fuzzy.
He peered up at the star-punctured sky, trying to clear his head. A delicate filigree of clouds shone against the black vault, rendered luminous by the silver light of the quarter moon.
He closed his eyes. Found the strength to resist the pull of each ebbing wave of sound.
But when he opened his eyes, he discovered his resistance was imaginary. He was even closer to the trees than before, only thirty feet from the perimeter of the forest, so close he had to squint against the blinding brightness emanating from the branches, the trunks, and the ground under the pines.
The moody amber light was now threaded with red, like blood in an egg yolk.
Eduardo was scared, miles past fear into sheer terror, fighting a looseness in his bowels and a weakness in his bladder, shaking so violently that he would not have been surprised to hear his bones rattling together-yet his heart was no longer racing. It had slowed drastically and now matched the steady thirty-beats-per-minute of the pulsating sound that seemed to issue from every radiant surface.
He couldn’t possibly stay on his feet when his heartbeat was so slow, the blood supply to his brain so diminished. He ought to be either in severe shock or unconscious. His perceptions must be untrustworthy.
Perhaps the throbbing had escalated to match the pace of his hammering heart.
Curiously, he was no longer aware of the frigid air. Yet no heat.accompanied the enigmatic light. He was neither hot nor cold.
He couldn’t feel the earth under his feet. No sense of gravity, weight, or weariness of muscle. Might as well have been floating.
The odors of the winter were no longer perceptible. Gone was the faint, crisp, ozone-like scent of snow. Gone, the fresh smell of the pine forest that rose just in front of him. Gone, the faint sour stink of his own icy sweat.
No taste on his tongue. That was the weirdest of all. He had never before realized there was always an endless and subtly changing series of tastes in his mouth even when he wasn’t eating anything. Now a blandness. Neither sweet nor sour. Neither salty nor bitter. Not even a blandness. Beyond blandness.
Nothing. Nada. He worked his mouth, felt saliva flooding it, but still no taste.
All of his powers of sensory perception seemed to be focused solely on the ghost light shining from within the trees and on the punishing, insistent sound. He no longer felt the throbbing bass washing in cold waves across his body, rather, the sound was coming from within him now, and it surged out of him in the same way that it issued from the trees.
Suddenly he was standing at the edge of the woods, on ground as effulgent as molten lava. Inside the phenomenon. Gazing down, he saw that his feet seemed to be planted on a sheet of glass beneath which a sea of fire churned, a sea as deep as the stars were distant. The extent of that abyss made him cry out in panic, although no thinnest whisper escaped him.
Fearfully and reluctantly, yet wonderingly, Eduardo looked at his legs and body, and saw that the amber light also radiated from him and was riddled with bursts of red. He appeared to be a man from another world, filled with alien energy, or a holy Indian spirit that had walked out of the high mountains in search of the ancient nations once in dominion over the vast Montana wilderness but long lost:
Crow, Sioux, Assiniboin, Cheyenne.
He raised his left hand to examine it more closely. His skin was transparent, his flesh translucent. At first he could see the bones of his hand and fingers, well-articulated gray-red forms within the molten amber substance of which he seemed to be made. Even as he watched, his bones became transparent too, and he was entirely a man of glass, no substance to him at all any more, he had become a window through which could be seen an unearthly fire, just as the ground under him was a window, just as the stones and trees were windows.
The crashing waves of sound and the electronic squeal arose from within the currents of fire, ever more insistent. As on that night in March, he had an almost clairvoyant perception of something straining against confinement, struggling to break out of a prison or through a barrier… Something trying to force open a door.
He was standing in the intended doorway.
On the threshold.
He was seized by the bizarre conviction that if the door opened while he was standing in the way, he would shatter into disassociated atoms as if he’d never existed. He would become the door. An unknown caller would enter through him, out of the fire and through him.
Jesus, help me, he prayed, though he wasn’t a religious man.
He tried to move.
Within his raised hand, within his entire body, within the trees and stones and earth, the fire grew less amber, more red, hotter, entirely red, scarlet, seething. Abruptly it was marbled with blue-white veins to rival the consuming brightness at the very heart of a star. The malevolent pulsations swelled, exploded, swelled, exploded, like the pounding of colossal pistons, booming, booming, pistons in the perpetual engines that drove the universe itself, harder, harder, pressure escalating, his glass body vibrating, fragile as crystal, pressure, expanding, demanding, hammering, fire and thunder, fire and thunder, fire and thunder-Blackness.
When he woke, he was lying at the perimeter of the forest, in the light of a quarter moon. Above him, the trees stood sentinel, dark and still.
He was in possession of all his senses again. He smelled the ozone crispness of snow, dense masses of pines, his own sweat-and urine. He had lost control of his bladder. The taste in his mouth was unpleasant but familiar: blood. In his terror or when he’d fallen, he must have bitten his tongue.
Evidently, the door in the night had not opened.