We are thrilled to present you this dark and disturbing tale featured in "It Calls From the Forest: Volume Two"
Moths to a Flame by O. Sander delivers on the mounting tension with a very unusual creature and a warning against forgetting the old mythology.
Moths to a Flame
I thought I saw her last night. Kate stood in the shadows of the trees that edge up to our property, barely picked out by the moonlight. She was hard to make out, almost not there, but I thought she was. It’s funny how the mind can play tricks. She’s been missing for two months, but this is the first time I thought I saw her, so maybe something deep inside me still hopes.
Who could blame me? I was caught from the moment I first saw Kate perform. She spun fire poi and danced in a costume of shining metal scales. The costume moved with her, describing her body in shimmering flame-light. She became fire herself in it, as she spun the balls of flame on their chains, otherworldly and unforgettable. She burned in my memory after that performance.
The Kate I saw dancing is hard to reconcile with the one from last night. That was a creature of fire, movement, and a joy that was almost palpable as she swayed and spun her poi. This Kate under the trees was all sad motionlessness, silent moon-silver, and shadow; a wraith, a specter, only barely there. Rationally I know it has to be a trick of the dark, just a shadow under the trees where my yard ends and the edge of the forest begins. It has to be. Then that traitor, the thing we call hope, whispers that it was my Kate I saw, no mistake. Real, alive, not a ghostly vision or figment of my imagination. If that were true, why wouldn’t she just come home?
I wash my coffee cup and stare out the kitchen window, across the yard to the tree line where Kate seemed to be standing last night. Now it’s just trees; no sign of her now, if there ever even was. I sigh, turning on the morning news in the hope that it’ll chase this false vision away. It doesn’t help. It fades into indistinguishable background noise, and I turn again to thoughts of my vanished girl. It’s like a missing tooth that my tongue goes back to probe again and again, as if something might have miraculously changed in the last two minutes.
I remember when I finally did meet her. I discovered that fire was her personality too: passionate, quick, warm, and a temper that could burn you to ash if she was provoked. I wasn’t the only moth drawn to Kate’s flame, and she made it clear from the start that she was a woman of many loves. I didn’t care. Well, I did, but I wanted to bask in her heat more than I cared whether I was the only one. We went out on our first date two days later. It lasted a week, and I was hooked.
When Kate went missing I tried to file a missing persons report. The deputy who was supposed to take the report dismissed Kate, me, and my concerns for her. His look was cold and full of distaste, and he suggested she’d just gotten tired and moved on to one of her many other lovers.
“You people…” he’d started, and I knew in my bones from his look and tone that by people he meant any LGBTQIA freaks in general, and this freak and her missing lover in particular. “You people, well, you’re not exactly the most stable or committed, are you? She’s probably fine, just hooked up with some other…female.”
I imagined all the epithets he was thinking during that pause. Bigots are so predictable, and so divorced from fact. I was angry, but I ignored his looks and his significant pauses, just pushing ahead until he finally took my report. I doubt they bothered much about it. I tried, for a while at least. I called the station to check in, and I posted fliers. I drove around looking, as if she would suddenly appear by the side of the road and apologize for losing track of time. I know I should have kept following up, kept pushing, but I finally sank into this hopeless depression and barely had the energy to get out of bed most days.
“…believed to be the man responsible for the disappearances of several women in Selma and surrounding communities.” The voice of the anchor on the morning news breaks through the grey wall of depression and my thoughts about Kate. I never listen to the news, and didn’t know this had been going on. The anchor continues in a practiced, neutral tone. There is just the slightest hint of concern around their eyes, the way reporters are trained to show.
“Police say the investigation is ongoing, but he allegedly abducted at least four local women that we know of so far. One source inside the department says they believe he kept them alive for about three months…” I switch the TV off, scrambling for the phone. I didn’t catch the man’s name in the broadcast, but I’m sure that he’s the one. He’s the reason my Kate disappeared, the reason why she’s been gone two months.
Maybe she’s still alive! Maybe they just need to find her, or maybe she’s been found but her name was withheld from the press. Don’t they do that with victims to protect their privacy? Maybe she’s giving a statement, or at the hospital, or…I exert some willpower, forcing myself to stop grasping at straws. What I need to do is talk to the Sheriff, or at least someone else involved in the investigation.
My hands are shaking so hard that it takes me three tries to dial, and my urgency makes hours out of the four rings it takes for my call to be answered. Finally, a voice on the line says, “Josephine County Sherr - “ A great, broken sob bursts from me, cutting her off. I haven’t cried, not once, since Kate vanished. Throwing hope on top of the brittle sticks of my despair and dry-eyed mourning shatters it all, the final stone that brings the whole crushing weight down. Now the tears come hot and fast, and I can’t speak. All I can do is shake and make these noises of grief that sound barely human into the mouthpiece of the phone.
I fight to push it down, to put a lid on it. I come to realize that the voice at the other end of the line has been trying her best to calm me down, but I can’t hear her over my own sobs and the turmoil inside me. In the end the concern in the voice on the phone helps me to regain control. As the violence of my sobbing dies I can finally start to make out what she’s saying.
“Ma’am? Ma’am, are you okay? Ma’am, do you need me to send someone? Do you need help?” The concern in the woman’s voice gets stronger with every question, and I know I have to get myself under control. I take a few slow, deep breaths, my sobs growing quieter. The questions keep coming, but the speed and urgency diminishes a little.
“S-s-sorry. Sorry. I’m o-okay. Sorry…” That’s all I can manage for a moment. I take another deep breath, try to find some calm, and attempt speaking again. “Okay. I th-think I’m okay. I saw on the news, the guy…the killer in Selma. The m-missing women. Can you tell me if any were alive? It’s just…my Kate…Kate Sommers, I mean…she went missing two months ago, and the news said…” I trail off as my emotions threaten to get free of my tenuous control again.
There’s a pause, and then, “Kate Sommers? Is this Melissa? Melissa Satterfield?” Professionalism has now completely disappeared, replaced by shock.
She sounds so surprised. I bet that means that bigot never did anything about the report I tried to file, comes my unbidden thought. It’s so detached from my feelings right this moment that it could have come from someone else. Then another thought on the heels of the first: Or maybe because she knows they found Kate’s body… Suddenly I no longer feel detached, and a renewed sob threatens. Shoving the reaction down hard, I manage to say aloud, “Yes, this is Melissa.” The tone of voice I automatically fall into sounds like I’m answering some business call, but the formality helps me keep control of myself.
“Kate was a really close friend. She talked about you all the time.” The woman’s voice is lower now, as if she’s trying to avoid being heard by anyone else in the station. “I shouldn’t be talking about this. It could mean my job. But…we haven’t found any sign of Kate in the cave with the other victims’ remains. I’ll call you if something comes up.”
“But the guy’s house is in Selma?” That’s all I can think about right now, the house in Selma, not far from here in Wonder.
“No. Nothing there. He took them to a cave…” She trails off, and I can hear other voices in the background. “Look, I can’t talk now. I just started here, and I can’t afford to lose this job already. I’ll call.” She hangs up before I can say more, leaving me in the same limbo I was in before I called. Is Kate gone? Is she still alive somewhere in the forest?
But no, she did give me one bit of information, didn’t she? A cave. Presumably a small one somewhere in the forest, nothing that would be remarked on or remembered, nothing that would draw attention. He wouldn’t want to be found. That doesn’t help me much, since the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest is huge. Short of finding law enforcement and following them to the site, I’ll never know where the cave is. Besides, no one was found alive there. The friend of Kate’s - and I realize now I never got her name - only mentioned remains. Kate, if she still lives, isn’t going to pop out of a shadowy nook and shout, “Here I am!”
I wander through the house to our bedroom and open the closet door. Amid the more prosaic, everyday clothing are Kate’s dance costumes. I run my hand over the shining metal of the one I first saw her in. Even in daylight it’s still glittering flame, all golds and reds. I remember her telling me she got it from an artisan not that far away, a man she called Troll. She said he lived and worked somewhere in Cave Junction, ironically enough with that nickname.
He wasn’t far from Wonder at all. I suddenly remember now that he and some fellow artisans call their business Fae Built, Inc. It’s appropriate. The outfit could easily have been spun from fairy magic, with the way it looks in motion. So shining and vivid, like Kate was.
There it is. “Kate was.” This thought, this start on accepting that Kate’s gone and isn’t coming back, is simultaneously terrible and relief. Hope can keep you going, but it also keeps the hurt alive.
I run my hand over the scales again, watching them move and catch the light. But what about what I saw last night? Kate, at the edge of the forest? I wondered why she didn’t come in then. I’ve never believed in ghosts, but now I have to wonder. That Kate was so pale silver and dark, not anything like the vital flame she always was, not like this fiery metal.
I have to know. I have to find this ghostly thing, and see what it really is. Tonight I’ll have a flashlight ready, and I’ll wait for the specter of Kate to appear. Maybe it’s all in my imagination, and she won’t show up. Maybe she’s just shadow and moonlight. Or maybe Kate will be at the edge of the forest tonight, and I’ll at least have a chance to say goodbye, if nothing else.
Whether the vision last night was a ghost or not, I’ve been haunted by Kate every moment of every day since she disappeared.
The moon is near full when it rises, flooding my backyard with light and leaving deep, jet shadows under the trees at the edge of my property. It’s frustratingly difficult to see if that pale, still version of my fiery Kate is there. I stare out my kitchen window for so long that it all starts to become a single, monochromatic blur as my attention begins to drift.
Movement calls me back. She’s there, she’s there, just stepping out of a shadow beneath the trees. She comes further out into the light tonight than she did last night. She’s still wan and pale, and even now I can’t tell if she’s alive or a ghost, or even some kind of hallucination dreamed up by my deep need to see her again. I can see her amid the undergrowth at the edge of the tree line, looking sadly toward the home we shared.
I shiver as her gaze passes blankly over the kitchen window, where I stand with the lights out as I watch her. Seeing her like this chills me to the bone, and I’m frozen in place. It’s only when she turns and begins to drift slowly back into the forest that I break my paralysis. I grab my flashlight off the counter and hurry to the door.
By the time I’m out on our small, rear deck the phantasm of Kate has begun vanishing into the shadows beneath the trees. “Kate!” I call to her, but it’s like she doesn’t hear or see me, like I’m the one who’s barely connected to the world now. I run down the stairs and across the yard to the tree line, too late to catch her before she melts into the silver and black zebra stripes of tree shadow and moonbeam.
It’s colder in the tree shadows. I shiver as I switch on my flashlight, calling her name as I search for her. There’s no answer, but I hear the snap and crackle of the twig and leaf litter from the forest floor off to my left, so I head that way. I stumble over roots, nearly falling a couple times, but I keep going. Real Kate or phantom, I have to know. I feel like I’ll lose my mind if I don’t.
The sounds only come occasionally, just enough to draw me on. Once or twice I catch a glimpse of movement, which must be the phantom I’m chasing. I think she has a limp. Do ghosts limp? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of one that did. A wind begins as I work my way through the trees. It isn’t strong, but now I’m thoroughly chilled. Goose flesh ripples down my arms, and the hiss of the wind through the leaves sounds almost like someone whispering. I can almost hear my name in it, calling me onward. I lose track of how long I’m in pursuit, or how far I’ve gone. I stay focused on just keeping after the sounds and short glimpses I get.
A flood of moonlight ahead, bright after so much time in the shadows of the trees, breaks me out of the spell. I look around and quickly realize that I’m lost. I make my slow way toward the brightness ahead, shivering and scared now. I can’t be all that deep into the forest, but it’s far enough that I recognize nothing. I make my way towards the moonlight, and soon find myself at the edge of a small clearing. I peer into the light, and gasp.
Kate stands on the far side of the clearing. She still doesn’t acknowledge me; instead she’s staring off to one side of the clearing. I see her in achingly beautiful profile, moon-silvered skin and hair a waving, ethereal shine as it catches the light. I call her name, then blunder through the last bit of the trees into the clearing.
But the clearing is empty; there’s only me and the cold light. No Kate. She’s vanished, as if she was never here, and I can’t find any hint of her among the shadows circling the brightness of the open space.
“Kate! Where are you?” My voice sounds a little panicky, but I keep trying. “Kate, it’s me! It’s Melissa!”
The wind picks up as I listen for any response. I hear something at last, the sound almost lost amid the rustle of the leaves.
It’s coming from the same direction I thought the vision of Kate was looking. Recklessly I plunge back into the shadows, chasing the phantom sound like I did the ghostly sight.
Abruptly I reach a break in the trees. Before me is a wall of natural stone, and in it is the blackness of a cave mouth. Kate’s ghost has brought me here; the place, I think now, that she probably died. I take a cautious step forward, shining my flashlight around the opening. A scraping sound echoes from somewhere inside, and then, unexpectedly, yellow light shines from somewhere in the cave’s depths. My heart leaps into my throat. What ghost needs light? Kate must be alive! I run into the cave, but I don’t get far.
Around a slight bend I trip over something in my blind rush. There’s a brief, sharp pain as my head hits the stone of the cave floor, and then blackness.
My head hurts, and ridges of stone press painfully into my side. These are what I notice first, then I hear movement and I remember where I am and why I’m here. I open my eyes, and there she is. Here’s the same profile I saw in the clearing, without the ghostly hues of the chase through the woods. The dim candle Kate lit has restored the flush of life to her skin and the shining gold to her hair. She is alive, and she’s here now! I want to leap up and throw my arms around her and never let go, but I discover I can’t. I struggle, realizing that, while I was unconscious, Kate had firmly bound my arms behind me.
“Kate? What’s going on? Why? Why did you - “
The sound of laughter cuts me off, though it’s not the joyful laugh I knew. This is different, a gruff almost-growl of a laugh. It barely sounds like something that could come from Kate’s mouth. Her body shakes with it, and it grows from the growl-like laugh into something more like a roar. It’s insane. That’s when I realize she is insane.
Whatever that monster from Selma did to her, however she survived, it pushed her over the edge. It explains everything. I see why she just stood in the woods instead of coming home now, why she acted as if she didn’t know I was there when I was following her. It explains why, when I finally found my girl, I wound up bound and helpless on a cave floor in the middle of the forest. If I could just get her to untie me, to come with me out of the cave and back to civilization, we can find her some help. We can fix this, together.
“Honey, whatever happened to you, whatever he did to you, we’ll get through this. I’m here for you, and we’ll figure this out. Just…just untie me. Just come home.”
The laughter cuts off abruptly, and Kate turns her head to look at me. She’s smiling, but it’s not a reassuring one. There’s no warmth there in my fiery Kate, just a kind of cold amusement at my expense, at what I’m saying, at the whole situation. “Home?” the question is a whisper.
I touched something. I did! If I can just keep going…If I can get her home, maybe that would fix whatever is broken. Or at least start to. My thoughts are rushed, but I try to keep her attention now that I’ve made some small connection. “Yes, home. You don’t have to stay here. You could come home. Get clean, have some hot food and a nice bed. I’ll do whatever you need, whatever it takes. Honey, I’ve missed you so much. Please, just come home with me and we can start to put it all behind us. Everything will be okay aga - “
“Melisssssssaaaaaaaaaaa…” Kate says my name, cutting me off. She draws it out like she did in the forest, and it reverberates from the cave walls, giving it a dark tone that I don’t like. Her voice also seems weirdly accented, not like herself at all. It sounds vaguely Hispanic, maybe.
“Melissa, you did not look around, did you.” It’s a statement, still delivered with that accent. She turns to face me, and I let out a small, involuntary shriek of surprise. She’s missing a leg, and in place of it she has a wooden one. It’s narrower at the hem of her skirt, then it widens into a large, slightly flattened ball with fancy notches carved into it. She limps closer to me, and even though this is my Kate I shrink back, trying to avoid her touch. My skin crawls with revulsion as she reaches toward me. She grabs hold of my t-shirt anyway, lifting me partly off the cave floor with a strength she never had before. Before I can react any further she turns me to face back toward the cave mouth.
There’s the bend I came around, and the thing that must have tripped me. It’s a pile of bone with a few shreds of raw, red flesh still clinging to them. And beside them, partially open eyes cloudy in death and mouth frozen in a silent scream, is Kate’s head. Most of the flesh has been left intact, so she’s still recognizable. I stare uncomprehending for a moment, then I realize what it is I’m seeing. I scream, trying to push myself back against the cave wall. I think I’d force my way through the cave wall if it would get me further away. The thing, whatever it is that looks like Kate, laughs its growling laugh at my terror.
“You people. You forget your old stories. You put all your faith in your machines and your science. Back home in Ecuador, or in Colombia, some still remember the lore. They know there is more than your science has found. So, when people disappear into the forest, they know. They say La Tunda is hunting, and they come to drive my kind off. Finally I came here, where the hunting is rich and no one remembers. Even with the molinillo that marks the Tunda,” she gestures toward the elaborate wooden leg, “you do not know what you face. You people are so accustomed to the monsters being your own kind, you never suspect that there are real monsters.”
As she - it - speaks, its features ripple and fold. Kate’s likeness melts away. I’m left staring at a hideous thing, skin like the darkened, rotting flesh of an old apple core. The large lips reveal sharp, jagged, triangular teeth like a shark’s as it speaks. “And so easy, in spite of all your science, for a shape changer to eat her fill and make sure some man takes the blame.”
I moan, “Please. Please just…just let me go. I won’t tell anyone. Please. Who would believe me…”
It laughs. “Oh, you will leave this cave. At least, something looking like you will leave this cave. You see, it is time for me to move on to new hunting grounds. Tomorrow you are going to be seen driving north, and then disappear. This will happen conveniently, just before the police find what’s left of your girlfriend and take an interest in where you went.”
I shake my head in denial of everything it says, pushing harder back against the cave wall as it gets nearer. It slowly drinks in my terror, like a fine wine. I can’t even beg any longer; the sounds coming uncontrollably from my mouth are whimpers and sobs.
“This Kate, she was delicious. Vital, and full of energy like a flame. Her fire drew me like a moth. I had to have it. I drank her slowly, just a little blood at first. She was too wonderful to waste by gorging. And oh, how she cried and called for you. It was almost as tasty to listen to her as it was to feed! I waited until she was too weak to provide me any dinner entertainment before I began to eat.”
The creature watches my face, savoring every reaction I make, every tear I shed. “If it was not time to move on, I might not have hunted again for weeks. But now it is time to go. You are no Kate, but you will do.”
The mouth of this thing that calls itself the Tunda opens impossibly wide. It grabs my leg, shredding the denim of my jeans easily with razor-like fingernails. Its slimy tongue comes out and licks delicately at my skin while it keeps its eyes locked on mine. It chuckles low in its throat at my disgust and horror, at my attempts to squirm away. Then it decides to stop toying with me. I scream my throat raw as it begins to feed.
About the Author
O. Sander is a writer, artist, composer, photographer, crafter, and family caregiver. She is originally from California but has bounced from place to place for most of her life. She finally landed in “25 square miles surrounded by reality” in Michigan, where she spends her time inventing worlds and exploring them through her drawings as well as writing their stories and music. She claims to be a combination of Morticia Addams and Glinda the Good Witch and tends to embarrass her long-suffering spouse into trying to pretend he doesn’t know her.