The Snail had come upon a wood deeper and darker than the one It had started from. Steep hills rose and fell up and down the sides of larger hills, creating ravines deep and wide, with rivulets carving through and crisscrossing their slopes. The forest floor was nearly bare but for ferns and then remains of fallen trees, while tall sentinel firs permitted only the odd shaft of sunlight. Curtains of moss hung still in the close air from the lowest branches, and soft green carpets marched over boulders large and small. Age and decay permeated the still silence.
It wasn't altogether unpleasant. The air smelled faintly of fecundity, of earth and rot, and life underneath. The clouds hung so low that some of them brushed the hillsides, and moisture wafted and gathered, which the Snail particularly enjoyed. Though the air was still, the ground and rotting wood swarmed in places with creatures the Snail was familiar with. This wood held no fear for It. It was simply...different.
The Snail surged resolutely forward, over and through every obstacle, not straying or pausing. After an indeterminate amount of time that the Snail did not bother to measure, It came upon a small, dilapidated cottage. Its buckled beams and walls were riddled with holes and covered with moss and fungi, and its roof was sunken and surely not waterproof. The cottage happened to be directly in the Snail's path. It did not even occur to the Snail to go around. Over the course of a day, It made Its way up a wall and through a the first splintered gap It came upon.
Inside, the Snail perceived something that did, for once, give It pause. Across the bare, filthy floorboards danced a woman, her feet naked and calloused. Her thin, tattered skirts swirled about her ankles; her wide, drooping sleeves slid up and down her thin, spindly arms. Her hands waved about and her hands twirled through, grasped, and clawed at the air. Long, chipped, brown talons extended from the ends of her fingers.
The woman, leaped from foot to foot, twirled in an about-face, and hopped in one fluid motion while her arms moved spasmodically, her head wobbling atop a long neck. Her sharp chin jutted toward the ceiling. And so on and so forth.
It was hypnotizing, and though there was no sound, the Snail could almost sense a beat and a rhythm. As usual, the Snail did not measure time, but even to us it would have seemed long that It perched in the gap in the cottage wall, and the woman danced tirelessly all the while.
However, the gaes that thrummed in the Snail's stalks was steadily increasing into a sensation of being tugged forward. There was nothing for it but to continue on down the interior of the cottage wall and onto the floor being battered by the woman's feet. Worry wasn't a feeling the Snail was accustomed to, but it began to feel apprehensive while nearing the uneven, dusty boards. The knowledge that Its shell could only withstand the lightest of her landings was unavoidable. Yet so was the gaes.
But almost as soon as Its entire underside had made contact with the floor, the woman suddenly became still. Her back was to It, and yet It had the eerie sensation that her eyes were locked upon it. All of a sudden, her skirts swirled again as she spun on the toes of one foot and gracefully leaped toward It to land on the toes of the other. Then both feet were on the ground and she was bent at the waste, her pointed chin and snub of a nose not even a foot off the ground, her eyes indeed upon It.
Those eyes had irises so dark they were nearly indistinguishably from the pupils. Curtains of long, dirty brown hair hung to either side of her face, kept off her forehead by a wreath of disintegrating dried flowers. Though her hands were clasped behind her back, her sleeves draped to the floor. They were ragged and filled with holes. The ends almost looked burnt...
"Hullo," she chirped at It. The Snail was taken aback, for her voice was pleasant, and It had been braced for a hoarse rasping. Yet it was clear as a bell and almost musical in those two syllables alone. She blinked and cocked her head, but her clear, penetrating gaze did not waver. And she waited.
Now, of course the Snail did not have vocal cords and therefore no voice, so it's only response was to wave its stalks and hope that it had some meaning to her. Apparently it did. She continued. "You're the largest visitor I've had in here in a very long time. And I can already tell you're the most intelligent." Something approximating a blush response response flushed over the Snail. "I can tell you're a creature of few words and not much of a conversationalist, but I have been ever-so-lonely since my husband died." A widow, then. "Might you keep me company awhile?"
The Snail had stopped in Its tracks upon reaching the floor, and the gaes continued to thrum, growing into a pulsing pull upon Its poor stalks, yet something about the Widow made the Snail not dare to move. It couldn't imagine refusing her. You could almost say It was afraid to. So It wiggled Its stalks in ascent.
A smile sliced the Widow's face from one ear to the other, and she straightened upward. "Wonderful!" she pronounced. "I was just having a dance. Would you care to join me? There's no talking involved in that."
The Snail had never attempted to dance in its life, as it had never occurred to It to try. Somehow, though, It didn't even really seem possible. The Snail bobbed Its head as much as It could, which was very slowly as Its neck tended to extend and retract without much speed, and It spread Its stalks wide in what It hoped was a gesture indicating futility.
"Oh, well, I guess having legs might help," the Widow observed with her chin resting in a curled hand, and then she lowered her head slightly, focusing her gaze onto the Snail so intently that It felt It might burst, and her brow knitted. Her eyes narrowed and then bulged. Then the Snail did burst, expanding outward in a rush, displaced air whooshing as a small gastropod swelled into something much, much larger almost instantaneously. There was no pain, only the feeling of expanding while a great hollow feeling within rushed to be filled. Its senses and perception leaped into an unfamiliar state that was also immediately recognizable as sight, smell, and hearing. Thought It had never had limbs before, muscle memory filled It. Filled him, he realized, when he noticed the sensation of air on yet another appendage. He was no longer a snail, but a man, a naked man, standing face to face with the Widow witch.
"Yes, that should help," said the Widow, nodding her satisfaction. "Now," she continued, hardly missing a beat, "follow my lead," and she rose onto her toes and twirled.
The man shifted from foot to foot, feeling his soles on splintered wood, which was somewhat uncomfortable, and after looking down at the floor to make sure it wasn't going anywhere, he shifted his gaze upward and watched her.
Again, he had the feeling that he could almost sense a beat, that he could see a rhythm. He continued to shift from foot to foot and began to bob his head, up and down, side to side. The Widow had been absorbed in herself with her eyes closed for a moment, but then she spun to face him, opened her eyes, and grinned. That toothy smile was not entirely unpleasant, yet it made the man's innards shiver all the same. Feeling as though there were something expected of him, he made his movements more pronounced, more enthusiastic. The Widow let out a tinkle of laughter and danced a quick circle around him, and he spun in place to keep his eyes on her. It made him a bit dizzy, so he hopped back a few steps to put some distance between them and then they were dancing opposite each other in a circle. The man felt a giggle surge in his throat, and it came out an unpracticed hooting grunt.
And then he could hear music. Not through his new ears, but in between them, vibrating in the hard shell that kept the shape of his head. It tinkled. It surged. It rushed and receded. It pulled at him like the gaes, but it was anything but steady. Its moods shifted so frequently and suddenly that it was almost hard to recognize them. There was urgency and near-stillness. There was whelming and then emptiness. There was anger, lust, gain, loss, exhilaration, and despair. There was bouncing, bubbling energy and then a calm that held no respite. All of these feelings constantly approached, but never quite reached, peace and happiness. There was only madness.
While the Widow's energy never wavered, the man quickly began to feel exhaustion that had nothing to do with his muscles or movements. He was tiring of the music, wanting it to stop, wanting to get away from it. Wanting to get away from her.
There was a door large enough for a man, he observed. As the cottage only had this single room, he correctly surmised that it led outside. He began to lumber toward it, feet dragging, not aware of when he had stopped dancing. The music continued inside his head.
The Widow alighted in front of him with a twirl. "Where are you going, lover?" she chirped sweetly?
Lover? he thought, recoiling on the inside. He did not exactly dislike her, but he did not have any cause to love her. He lifted his head and pointed his chin toward the door, volunteering a grunt that might have been his first ever attempt at speech.
She lifted an eyebrow and a corner of her mouth as if to ask him if he was serious. "Come, now," she said as if addressing a child or a simpleton, "why don't you stay and dance with me?"
He did not know how to convey to her that the music was tiring him, that it was beginning to grate at his nerves, that it seemed to be restlessly pounding now. He did not know how to answer her, except to take a lumbering step toward the door.
Now her mouth was a hard straight line, her eyes cold. "Why don't you just rest a moment then, and watch me?" she asked, not unkindly. But there was nothing kind behind those eyes. The man sensed a building fury that made him take yet another step toward the door, even though she stood in his path. While he stepped past her, it seemed as if his bulk brushed her aside, yet he did not feel his body make contact with hers. She stumbled aside as though it had.
The Widow stood with her neck stretched toward him, her hands balled into tight fists at her sides. As he covered the remaining distance to the door, she began to follow him. "What, you can't keep up?" she demanded angrily. "Don't have the stamina for it?" The lilting, bird-like quality to her voice began to sharpen and elevate into a screech. "Can't even stay and watch?" A sob had threatened to break through.
The man couldn't answer, but though it obvious that he needed a break from the music. That he needed a break from her. That feeling intensified with every word she said. And while the gaes had seemed to evaporate with his transformation, was all but forgotten while he danced, he was feeling it again as he reached the door, as a tightening in the sac between his legs now that he had no stalks atop his head. It was painful as it began to pull, to wrench him onward. He needed to lessen it as much as he needed to stop this distraction from his journey.
He reached for the latch of the door, and the Widow inserted herself in front of him yet again. "No, please!" she begged. "We can stop dancing. I can stop, see? We can just sit quietly together awhile, can't we?" There was no way to tell her not even that would do. He would reach through her to get to the latch if necessary, he thought, as the pain of the gaes elevated. And as the man's arm plunged for the latch, the Widow was repelled aside yet again, even though he felt no touch.
Her arms stretched toward him, her hands becoming grasping claws. They pawed at him, yet slid ineffectively over him without making contact. She became furious and threw herself at him in an all-out assault, yet she could not touch him, and she sank to her knees, sobbing, while her hands continued to worry at the air. "He was mine!" she wailed. "He was miiiiine!"
The man lifted the latch and took a step back so the door could swing inward. At this, the Widow's eyes bulged out madly, he teeth bared as if she would rip out chunks of his flesh with them. "You are MINE!" she snarled, and pounced atop him like a cougar...
He flinched and closed his eyes, braced for impact, but never felt a thing. She just slid off of him without him ever feeling a thing, as though some thin barrier prevented sensation and repelled her weight completely. She became a puddle of torn and tattered skirts with her face in her hands, shaking and sobbing.
At that moment, the man doubled over from the pain in his scrotum, but not before he felt a surge of pity for the Widow. As he was bent, he had also stretched a hand forward, intending to place it on her shoulder and give comfort, as if to say, I'll be back in just a moment, be patient, and he would have to ease her suffering, even though it would mean he would undoubtedly have to go through this ugly departure all over again. But when his hand reached her shoulder, it slid aside through empty air, and then he was falling onto his buttocks outside the door, disoriented and breathless.
A moment after he had made contact with the earth, his own suffering lessened as his testicles shrank and retracted, and then It felt Its entire body becoming smaller. Bones disappeared, perceptions shifted, and swiftly, with a surge of gratitude, It was a snail again. The witch's magic ended beyond the cottage door and, apparently, so did her reach. She was on her feet again, and her hands were palm-outward in the air with weight against them, as though she were pressed against glass. Her gaze was empty, her face devoid of expression. "It happened again," she whispered to no one in particular.
Stalks thrumming again, the Snail found Its path and aligned itself, then surged forward with the gaes becoming a gentle but insistent companion. If It could have perceived behind itself - if It would have bothered to - It would have known that as It gained distance from that queer, dilapidated cottage that the door remained open, and the Widow was dancing again as It had found her: Alone, to music only she could hear, unable to go anywhere. Unable to touch or be touched by anyone.