He strode up the small hill, a breeze turning the high grasses into rolling waves, swells sent across the sweeping expanse of the veldt all around him. Surprised at even being here, he was one hill rise away from the place he first read about in a creased and crumpled issue of The Saturday Evening Post stuffed in alongside a small, glass statuette laid into a voluminous steamer trunk bought at an estate sale two years ago. The people in town feigned ignorance when he asked about the place but the teenagers congregated outside the coffee shop told him where to find it. “But no one goes up there,” they’d said as he thanked them for the directions. A blond haired boy who’d stayed quiet when the others talked freely took hold of his coat sleeve as he turned away, “Don’t get too close or you’ll be stuck.” He’d chased this for too much time and he wouldn’t let secondhand fears dissuade him.
Only a few steps more, not 30 yards away he figured. Three great oak trees, their foliage intertwined spread across the hill crest obscuring his view of what was set beyond. Tucked tight, folded under his right arm was the find that started all this, the article he’d happened upon, page 52, of The Saturday Evening Post issue dated 1946. Everyone he’d passed it around to took it as an abstract, surreal little fiction, nothing more. To him it was more than some scene created in the writer’s mind. He was sure the author saw the place with his own eyes. The article gave no location, no landmarks to follow. It seemed the writer felt a need to put what he saw to paper but was reluctant to lead others to it. This, of course, served only to catalyze his search. After 2 years of leads tapering off and fading away, one brought him to this remaining, patch of grassland plains set into the southern Dakotas.
Cresting the rise, the trees spaced apart, their branching fingers interlaced above his head formed a natural, vaulted archway. “This wasn’t in the article,” he said to himself. A raven embedded in the tangle of limbs and leaves announced the stranger’s presence, a deep throated warbling. With but a few impatient steps through, he knew he’d found it. Where a perceptible breeze rustled the grasses before he stepped through the natural passage, there was none here, only a tangible stillness that enveloped him. He’d crossed a veil, one his mind could only liken to breaking through the surface of water. Ahead of him barring his way, lines of rusting barbwire suspended between sun-beaten remnants of fence posts meandered off in two cardinal directions from where he found himself. Atop the nearest post a weathered bottle of wine sat balanced at an implausible angle, suspended in mid-fall, it seemed.
Beyond the fence spread into the distance, a still-life. A scene stretched before him of a silent herd of bison, set in place grazing across a plain of still grasses, against a sky and horizon reminiscent of a painted backdrop for a theater play. He remembered the small town museum he frequented as child, their life-sized dioramas of wildlife habitats filled with stuffed animals and glued-in-place plants. He felt he was staring into a cheap still-life on a massive scale. He’d found what he was looking for but standing before the scene there was little sense to be made of it. The deeper, more intently he stared at the scene, the grasses appeared to flatten. The nearest animal, the closest of the herd, its hide melded from individual, coarse hairs to brushed-strokes of darks and tans. The scene before him, just beyond the ancient fence flattened upon itself, from a physical world he could have walked through to a canvas, a scene of two dimensions. He struggled to decipher the view before him, attempting to see through what must be an illusion of light and distance. He willed his eyes to adjust, to counter the mirage.
Behind him he heard a rustle of feathers. From the corner of his eye he saw the raven take flight toward the illusion. His head swam, his vision faltered. His stomach gave way and he raised his hand to take hold of something steady but found nothing. The scene beyond the fence shuddered, blurred and shifted side to side then froze as if it was a filmstrip caught up in a projector. The bison, the grass, the sky out into the horizon, everything beyond the fence, was shunted off-kilter. The raven that had announced his approach sat still, perched on a post, one which leaned into the scene, a part of the film now.
He found himself venturing closer. He needed to see. The bird was there on the post. He could see it in detail but it wasn’t there. Should he reach out for it there would be no feathers to touch, no warmth of a body underneath, only a flat surface, a screen with a projected image. But he caught something, something in the creature’ eye. He leaned in peering closer. The pupil filled the whole of its eye but for narrow ring of blue encircling it. Nothing more. He signed in irritation, then it moved. He leapt back tempering an anxious rush to escape this place. He stepped in close again. The black pupil narrowed to a point and stared back at him with an incomprehensible panic. His hand thrust out for the bird, his thought on rescue.
The surface gave as his fingers penetrated the screen, a thickness beyond enveloping them and his hand that followed. Cold rushed through his arm and over his shoulder, flowing through inside of him. His head swam, his vision faltered. His stomach gave way as he tried to reach for something to catch himself but there was no response. His arm wouldn’t rise, his hand wouldn’t grasp hold. The cold filled him, surrounded him and encased him. In his eyes, hysteria, his mind writhing in panic the only thought coherent amidst the piercing horror, the teen’s warning bounded through his head,
“Don’t get too close or you’ll be stuck.”