From my forthcoming collection of short stories, The Echoing Green and Other Stories
5:30, the clock said. Things were winding down in the warehouse.
He finished the last pallet, put the docket on the shelf with the others and went into the small kitchen area to change out of his boiler suit into his casual clothes. On his way out, he popped his head into the office to say goodbye.
Outside, one of the vans was pulling up. He saluted the driver.
‘Any plans for the weekend?’ the driver shouted.
‘No. Just reading!’ he yelled back.
‘One of these days! One of these days we are going out on the town and we are going to get you a woman!’
He laughed, nodded his head and waved.
As he always did, he passed through a small, forested area on his way home. And, as he sometimes did, he sat down on the bank of a little river that hurried through the trees as if impatient to be out of the gloom.
He took a pack of cigarettes from his trench coat and pulled one out. He tapped it on the box a few times before lighting it and taking a deep drag out of it.
He sat there, brooding. He thought about his life. About how unsatisfactory it was. He thought about his ex-wife, how she had almost destroyed him. He thought about his poor attempts at writing. He thought about his dead father. And, inevitably, he thought about the bottle. That bottle that held bliss. Waiting for him. Calling to him. Crying out to him to come home.
He knew that the time was fast approaching when he would have to give it up. He wanted to stay alive. He was still a young man. He wanted to stick around and see what happened to his life. But it wouldn’t be this weekend. No, this weekend he would answer the call. Or, at least, that is what he was planning.
The powers above had other plans, however.
He pulled out another cigarette and tapped it on the box, and then suddenly it started to rain. It rained heavily and straight down, as if someone had turned on a tap. He cursed, put the cigarette in his shirt pocket and got up, looking around for the best tree to shelter under. There was a giant oak on the other side of the river. It was split and hollowed inside the trunk. The foliage on the branches looked copious enough to provide cover. He had never noticed the tree before, but he didn’t take note of such things, generally. He came here for a bit of peace and quiet. Not to study trees.
He jumped the stream easily enough and, in a few seconds, he was standing under the strong and generous arms of the oak. It was completely dry. The ground was soft and inviting. Dead leaves and mossy undergrowth made a quilt that he just couldn’t resist resting upon. He took out the cigarette, lit it, and inhaled deeply, leaning his head back on the tree trunk. And, in this way, he enjoyed the rain.
The insistent patter made him calm. It was as if nature was talking to him. Telling him a tale that was completely rational and reassuring. A mother’s tale for a rainy day. And, for a couple of minutes, all was right with the world. He forgot about all his demons and cares. There was just him and the rain and the utter sanity of its story. Her story.
But like all stories, it had to come to an end.
The rain stopped. It stopped as suddenly as it had started, leaving the forest to its gloom and its secrets. It was dusk. A cold, grey shadow seemed to descend on the world. The forest was invaded by silence and he felt like the last man alive. As always, there was something alien and hostile about the wood at these times. He felt like he was a trespasser. Like he was in forbidden territory. The only sound was the trickling of the river as it hurried on its way home.
At times like this, he relished his solitude. Being alone was a discipline he had mastered. He sat there, calling out the darkness. Bring it on! He said to himself. I’m not afraid! You can’t scare me!
But he wasn’t alone.
‘Hello?’ said a small voice at his shoulder.
At first, he thought the voice was in his head.
‘Hello?’ it said again. ‘Can you hear me?’ He started to worry. Was he going insane? Was he being punished for his pride?
‘Hello, out there!’. He could feel the panic welling up inside him.
‘Can you hear me?’ the little voice said and then coughed. It was the cough that brought him back down. It sounded too naturalistic to come from his mind. A child’s cough it was. He turned his head to his right, where the voice seemed to be coming from.
‘Where are you?’ he said. He felt a bit strange, like he was talking to himself, but that was far better than hearing voices.
‘I’m in the tree! Behind you!’ It was a girl’s voice.
He got up and looked inside the hollow trunk where the wood was split. He saw two eyes hovering in the darkness. Yellow pupils surrounded by crimson. He had never seen such eyes as this before. He thought maybe she was wearing contact lenses. The kind that altered the colour of your eyes. Like Marilyn Manson wore.
‘What are you?’ he said, half frightened and half fascinated.
She didn’t answer, only started to whimper. Then he felt guilty. Whatever she was, the creature was alone and frightened. More frightened than he was.
‘Ok, ok,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry. I’m here. How did you get in there?’
‘I went into the other tree. I only wanted to see what it was like. But it was raining, and I was afraid. So, I stayed here. And now I can’t go back. I want to go home!’
‘Ok, ok. You can come out now. It’s safe. I’m here,’ he said.
‘No, I can’t. I’m stuck here. I stayed too long and now I’m stuck here. My Da is going to kill me.’
‘What do you mean you are stuck here? Can’t you just climb out?’
‘No, I’m stuck here. I must wait until the dawn. Or until my Da finds me. O, he’s going to be so angry!’
‘Ok, forget about your Dad for a moment. Why must you wait until dawn?’
‘Because that is when the tree works. You can use the tree at dawn or dusk. But if you stay too long you get stuck. I was afraid of the rain. And I got stuck.’
‘What do you mean use the tree? Use it for what?’
‘To travel to the world. I only wanted to see. I’m too young but I only wanted a peep. But I got scared and lost and now he’s going to kill me!’
‘Travel to what world?’
‘This world.’ she said. ‘The world.’
‘The Otherworld. I shouldn’t even be talking to you. That’s going to get me into more trouble. He’s going to be so angry!’
‘Are you some kind of fairy?’ he said. ‘Is that what you are saying?’
‘Yes. That’s what you call us. Fairies.’
‘Is this some kind of joke? Because if it is, I’m not laughing.’
‘Please don’t get angry. He’s going to be so angry at me and now you…I’m sorry. I only wanted to have a peep. I’m so sorry.’
‘So, you travelled from the Otherworld using this tree and you got stuck and now you have to wait until dawn to get back. Is that what you are saying?’
‘Yes,’ she said and sniffled.
‘I don’t know what to do,’ he said.
‘Please don’t leave me. I don’t like it here on my own. In the dark,’ she said.
‘What about your father? Is he in this world?’
‘No. But he’ll know what has happened. He knows everything. He’ll be here soon. He always uses this tree.’
‘I don’t understand. If the tree works only at dawn or dusk how will he get here?’
‘There are other ways,’ she said. ‘He knows them all. He knows everything.’
‘Fine,’ he said and sighed. ‘I guess we’ll just have to wait until your father comes looking for you.’
‘You’ll stay with me?’
‘You won’t go anywhere?’
‘Promise,’ she said.
‘I promise I won’t go anywhere,’ he said.
‘Thank you. What is your name?’
‘I’m not supposed to give my name to strangers, but you can have it for being so good to me. It’s Babble.’
‘Babble? That’s a strange name,’ he said as he sat down again, leaning his back against the trunk.
‘It’s because of when I was a baby. My mother said I babbled a lot. Like I wanted to talk badly. But now it doesn’t suit me. It’s a silly name. I hate it.’
‘So, what will I call you?’ he said, taking out his cigarettes.
‘Okay Bab. Tell me about yourself.’
‘Um, I don’t know. I don’t have much to say. Except that I love stories.’
‘You love stories?’
‘Yes. But we all love stories where I come from. So, I’m not that special.’
‘Same here,’ he said.
‘No, I mean we love stories. I mean really love them. I mean we couldn’t live without them,’ she said.
‘I understand. I feel that way about them too.’
‘You do? You’re not just lying? To make me happy?’
‘I couldn’t live without them,’ he said.
‘Will you tell me a story?’ she said.
‘Sure. Ah, let’s see. There are so many,’ he said. ‘Ok. One of the greatest stories ever told. There was a Hobbit, named Bilbo Baggins. He had a birthday party coming up. But before we get to that, let me tell you something about Hobbits and Hobbiton.’
‘No!’ she said.
‘I’m sorry. I’m not much of a story-teller.’
‘No! I mean not that story! Everyone knows the Lord of the Rings,’ she complained.
‘You mean you have Tolkien in your world?’
‘Yes, of course. I mean, what do you expect? Where do you think he got his ideas from?’
‘Ok. Let’s see. Have you heard the story of the Odyssey?’
‘Yes! We’ve heard them all. Again and again. Don’t you know any original stories?’
‘Yes. I have a head full of them. But they’re not that good. And I’m not much of a storyteller,’ he said.
‘Tell me! I want to hear!’ she said. A slightly bratty note came into her voice, but he let it go.
‘You won’t even like them. They are for adults. Not children.’
‘We don’t care! Tell us!’
‘Sorry. I meant to say, I don’t care. In my world, we sometimes get these things mixed up.’
He sighed and said, ‘ok. Let’s see.’ For a few moments the world was silent except for the small river that chuckled as it went by.
‘There was once a man. An old man who was still very much young at heart. He wore a trench coat and a cap, and he rode a bicycle. His business was to investigate. Investigate the supernatural. He lived near a wood and, most days, he would take his dog, Argos, for a walk there. Sometimes, deities and supernatural creatures would seek him out there, needing his help. This one day, he met an old friend. The Norse god, Odin….’
Once he got into his stride, he told the story much more competently than he thought he would. As he got deeper into it, he began to see it in his mind. It was vivid, like a dream, but incredibly clear. It was like he was viewing it on a movie screen and then just relating what he saw. Part of him protested. This isn’t right! That’s my story! Nobody else’s! But another voice shushed him, as if he were at the back of the movie theatre, making noise.
So, he sat back and enjoyed the show, all the time telling the girl what he was seeing.
As he approached the end of the story, the people on the big screen began to morph into strange, hybrid creatures, both eldritch and beautiful. All manner of flower and fauna seemed to merge and meld creating unique beings, whose like would never be seen again. The dominant creature seemed to be a lion that stood with a hide of crimson flowers. He held a staff with a clock at its tip. The landscape also became more surreal. He soon found himself transported to that place. He was in an arid desert. The sand was so hot that he couldn’t rest or even walk. He had to run. There was a small, squat medieval tower ahead of him. The hybrid creatures were crowding around it, demanding to be let in. The lion was at the head of the crowd, knocking at the door with the clock on his staff. As he ran, he shouted at them, that’s my tower! Nobody gets in but me! But his voice was small and high pitched, like a little girl’s, so nobody heard him.
He awoke suddenly. ‘What?’ he said, looking around him.
‘Are you ok?’ Bab said.
‘You fell asleep,’ she said.
‘It’s ok. That was a really good story.’
‘What time is it?’ he said, then looked at his watch. It was nearly 9pm. ‘Jesus! I’m famished,’ he said, taking out another cigarette. ‘Are you sure your Dad will come looking for you? I don’t think I can stay here ‘til dawn. My stomach won’t let me.’
‘Please don’t leave me. You promised you wouldn’t,’ she said.
‘I’m not going to leave you on your own.’
‘So, you liked the story?’
‘Even if I fell asleep half-way through?’
‘Yes! I was able to tell the rest of it myself,’ she said. ‘Will you tell me another one?’
‘I’ll try. If I nod off again shout at me, ok?’
‘Ok,’ she said.
‘Let’s see,’ he said and there was silence as he mustered his memories. ‘There was a man who lived in a wood. In a little hut. He liked to meditate so people called him Bhikku. Bhikku Reilly. One day, he was meditating outside the door of his hut, when he was visited by the Green Man. Let me tell you a bit about the Green Man…’
Once again, as he got into the meat of the story, he could see it playing itself out with the eye of his mind and he just told the little girl what was happening. It was like dreaming with his eyes open. Or dreaming rationally, if such a thing were possible. But, again, things started to turn surreal. He was not a fan of surrealism, so he protested. And again, he was shushed by another voice in the theatre.
This is my story! he shouted. I’ll decide where it will go!
Stories should be shared, Michael. Don’t be selfish, the voice said.
Am I sleeping again? he said.
Yes, the sleep of reason.
What is that supposed to mean?
You are unclouded by reason, the voice said. This is the raw stuff of stories. The unfettered imagination. Just watch!
He was transported to the desert again. This time he was on top of the tower, looking over the parapet. There was a beach nearby. The water was green and shivering, like a great bowl of jelly. He heard a loud flutter of wings behind him. He was about to turn around, but a voice said, ‘no! Don’t! Stay where you are.’ The voice sounded like a man and a woman talking in unison. ‘Keep watching the water,’ it said.
So, he did. After a while, a boat appeared in the distance. As it neared, he could discern that it was a Viking longboat. He suddenly felt an atavistic dread invade him. As they got nearer, the dread in his heart rose.
‘I have to get out of here,’ he said. ‘Vikings!’
‘No need to be afraid,’ the voice said. He felt a hand resting on his right shoulder. ‘They’ve only come to plunder. They won’t harm you.’
So, he watched. He was afraid but also fascinated. The boat reached the shore and the men leaped out. They did it with an ease that was almost graceful, as if they had done this a thousand times before. He felt another wave of dread pass through him. The hand on his shoulder seemed to react by massaging it. It had a calming effect on him. ‘Keep watching,’ the voice said.
Once they were out of the water, they picked up speed. They seemed to head straight for the tower. The leader had a familiar lope to him. It wasn’t until they were nearly at the base of the tower that he recognised him. It was his father.
‘I have to get out of here. He looks seriously pissed,’ he said.
‘Don’t worry. He won’t harm you,’ the voice said, all the time massaging his shoulder.
‘He’s going to kill me!’
‘No, he won’t,’ the voice insisted. ‘This is just a dream. He can’t harm you.’
He saw the men crowd at the base of the tower. His father looked up at him with murder in his eyes. He stepped back from the parapet.
‘Keep watching,’ the voice said.
His father was the first to reach the parapet. As he climbed over it and stood before him, he could see that the Viking had the face of his father, but not the eyes. He had alien eyes. Yellow pupils surrounded by crimson. Where had he seen eyes like that before? Then, to his horror, the Viking’s eyes started to bleed, and he smiled underneath those bloody tears.
‘Keep watching,’ the voice said.
But he refused. He struggled out of the dream stuff until he broke the surface, panting and as weak as a new-born.
‘What the Hell?’ he managed to say.
‘It’s ok,’ the girl in the tree said. ‘Just another dream.’ He felt the hand on his shoulder, massaging it, calming him. He looked to his right and, though he couldn’t see all of the hand, he could make out its fingers. They were gnarled and unnaturally long. At the tips they glowed orange. The orange seemed to be spreading into his shoulder. The fingers worked slowly and with a kind of hideous graceful dance, as if there was music in the air that he couldn’t sense.
Shuddering, he brushed the hand off his shoulder, like it was a giant repulsive spider. He tried to stand up, but he was too weak. His legs gave out.
‘Please don’t leave!’ he heard the child cry out. And under her voice he could just about hear a hundred others crying out also. ‘Don’t leave me alone like this!’
He managed to crawl away from the tree on his elbows.
‘You promised!’ the voices cried. ‘You promised you wouldn’t go anywhere!’
He reached the river and tried to stand up again, but he couldn’t. So, he crawled across like a reptile. He thought about if anyone should see him like this and he would have laughed if he wasn’t so weak. Once on the other side, he was able to stand up, though his legs were wobbly. He looked behind him, almost out of breath, but the tree was engulfed in darkness, and he could hear no more cries.
He made his way through the wood as quickly as possible. He staggered and lurched and fell over a few times as he ran. His trench coat billowed in the air behind him, making him look like some drunken, reject of a superhero. Once he was out of the woods, he fell on his knees at the side of the road and slipped into a state of semi-consciousness.
He was awakened by a hand on his shoulder. ‘Are you ok?’ a voice said. He turned his head to look at the speaker, his eyes wild with terror. ‘Jesus, what happened to you?’ said a young woman with a concerned face. When he saw her, he slumped back down with exhaustion and relief.
‘Long story,’ he managed to say. He remained slumped for a few moments before looking up at the woman again and saying, ‘any chance of a ride?’
‘Sure. My car is nearby,’ she said.
‘Not sure if I can walk,’ he said.
‘Let me help you,’ she said. He got up, put an arm across her shoulders and she walked him to the car.
‘Thanks,’ he said after they were both seated.
‘Did you come from the wood?’ she said.
‘Do I look that wild?’
‘Yes,’ she said and laughed. ‘How do you feel now?’
‘Ok. Better. Just please don’t ask me to tell any stories.’
‘Ok,’ she said.
So, they rode on in silence, him resisting sleep and her resisting the need to know what had happened him.
But soon, as they approached the city and he felt his strength returning, they began to talk.
And that, as they say, is another story.