But... – what?
It was as if there were joyous sounds emerging from somewhere behind
those trees on the other side, no, not just sounds, there was – indeed! –
there it was again: music! If my ears could be trusted it were fiddles I
heard playing softly, and every now and then pregnant vibrations of a
harp, or of something that sounded like one, were carried along by the
evening breeze. There was singing, well, humming at least; could be a
woman, maybe a child, and certainly it was a gay tune, a lullaby of sorts
maybe. I couldn’t quite pin it down, yet there was something.
The inn! I thought. It must be that inn mentioned in the letter!
And as I stepped forward – yes, would you believe it? – for a fleeting
moment I thought to even spot shapes and figures out there! Tiny figures
they were: people – children, hobbits, Brownies? – prancing in circles,
laughing, dancing, singing, dancing, laughing, prancing in circles… Oh
yes, tiny figures they were: people – children, hobbits, who knows,
Brownies? Yet when I removed the shade my hand had offered me to better
observe the spectacle against the light of the dying sun, it all...
I made a step forward and saw everything
getting swallowed by the darkness that crept out of the underbrush in the
fading day, stifling the brightness and merriment I thought to have picked
up between the blinks of an eye. Had it just been my imagination? However,
it was as if those trees cast fresh shadows the very moment I advanced,
and while the trunks, boughs and leaves right in front of me stood still,
the shadows kept on swaying like those figures I thought to have seen
before. I stood there, transfixed, until the ghostly stir ceased again and
everything was calm.
It was then that the wind really picked up, so
that I could feel its touch and hear its howling. Trees and shadows were
now rocking at the same time as they used to, and the breeze’s chilly
touch reminded me of pursuing what I’ve come here for. Confused, I blinked
into the darkening sky.
I moved on, crossed the clearing. There was
no time to lose.
Rambling, mumbling to myself, stumbling, tumbling
I was, all the way drawn towards the short-lived shadows I had believed to
see dancing, prancing, commencing something I wouldn’t know to describe.
But the shadows dissolved now more and more into blurry masses, then into
one single gigantic black maw as I came nearer. And with the shadows
turning into utter darkness my hopes that they’d lead me somewhere, that I
was to join their merriment, dwindled.
But there – lo and behold! –
there it was! As soon as I reached the other side of the clearing I saw a
small path winding itself through the tense forest! The path, I was
confident, matched exactly the one shown on the map I had just looked at.
It had to! Without thinking twice, I took it, joyous to have come across
what I was looking for, forgetting about the fascinating figures, the
strange episode. All of a sudden I was prancing, laughing, dancing,
humming to myself.
Eventually I got swallowed by the darkness that
crept out of the underbrush in the fading day, leaving a clearing behind
where new shadows appeared once more to sway in the wind for a while –
until they stood still again, and everything and everyone turned silent.
I cannot be sure how long I followed that path, I truly cannot: that
path, through the dense forest, in which I had set all my hopes to get me
to the pond in time.
I peered at the tree next to me, gazed at it
questioningly, yet it looked just like the one several heartbeats back
when I had started out entering this part of the forest. As I looked down
now, and with every step I took, I noticed that the path I had started on
was dissipating in front of me in the gloom. Dusk had begun to take over,
sneakily veiling my surroundings, dyeing it in shades that made a tree
indistinguishable from an onlooking watcher.
I stopped, swirled
around, mystified. There was a tree, another tree, another, and yet
another one; and then that other one which stood just to the next; and
next to it stood I.
I cannot be sure how long I followed that path,
I truly cannot.
“Too long,” the tree next to me replied.
“Way too long...” A deep voice came from a gnarled exemplar
behind me and it bowed down for a greeting, its treetop interlocking
noisily with one if its counterparts above me. The tree extended its
creaking boughs towards me.
Doubting my senses, I left the path
that was none, and ran. I ran as fast as I could, no matter where I might
end up, trying to escape that haunting voice. But there were more. Those
voices that felt like discussing this late traveler’s unfortunate destiny,
the traveler’s, who had got astray with no idea where salvation might lie.
Incessant were their murmurs, they muttered and babbled, and what had
started as a whispered remark here and there soon became louder, so that
eventually the whole forest was rustling with chatter as if a furious
storm was inciting every single tree that blocked its course.
“That one’s lost, you know,” I picked up
from one of my wooden companions as I sought my way out of the forest,
encountering tree upon tree. “Yes, yes, that’s for sure, no doubt
about that,” another one answered, and creaked as he nodded.
“What you don’t say,” said the other. “Not the first one at that,
I tell you!”
And I ran and ran, but the murmurs wouldn’t
“How could that have happened? Didn’t that one even have
a map?” asked still another one as I darted away, away from them, all
of them, to get rid of them, just to get out, out and away. “And so
confidently these steps were walking amongst us, so sure and guided! What
determination! And that one hasn’t even found the inn!” the one next
to me croaked woodenly in a mockery of laughter as I finally hit the
ground, exhausted. “Not even the inn, just imagine!”
“Oh dear, not even that!” one of the trees produced with an
especially eerie hollow groan.
“And yet, here you are again,”
the tree continued, still standing next to me, looking familiar somehow.
He was talking to me! “What do you run from? There’s nobody here
except you! And haven’t I told you already that you’ve followed your path
I turned around, hearing branches creak close by.
The gnarled tree that I had heard speaking first was there as well, I
recognized it without a doubt... As if I hadn’t moved at all! Its booming
voice decided to finally offer me a profound wisdom the forest called its
own: “Calm down, friend. Don’t act like any other mortal lost out here
with the habits they enjoy so much: walking, running, well, just call it
‘going from one place to the other’.” Contempt oozed from the gnarled
tree’s somber voice. “But no matter how you call it - it is all the
same: searching. Yet you cannot become one of us if you always keep
moving, you know.”
An odor of wet, brittle timber reached my
senses, accompanied by a loud, wooden groan, and then there was this
sensation of roots snaking around my legs and body. I felt a firm,
inescapable grip upon my ankle.
“Aren’t we getting weary, my
good friend?” I heard a voice so close as though it came from deep
inside of me, as convincing as a lullaby. “Aren’t you tired of the
constant bustling, longing for a quiet, leafy rustling? Aren’t your bones
now stiff and numb, so glad to join us wooden chums? Rest is best, we say,
put down a root, it’ll do you good!”
I looked down to my feet,
where the boughs had grabbed me, had painfully wrapped around my legs. But
I didn’t feel the wet clayey touch anymore on my skin, all I could see was
bark falling off my thighs as if it had always grown there. And it was
then that I finally closed my eyes.
I awoke in the dead of night. What I understood was that I was sitting
somewhere, embraced by mighty gnarled hands, holding me in their tight
grip. As I sat, I found that I was unable to move in the entangled web of
wooden claws, but neither did I wish to for some reason. Lowering my gaze,
I discovered that I was wearing a dark gown, which went straight down to
my ankle. It appeared to be grey, but then again, it might have been earth
colored as well, as the half-darkness made it difficult to discern any
shades. Yet the intricate embroidery around the hems glittered brightly,
so I assumed that it must have been golden. Undoubtedly I was barefoot.
The cold wind was leafing
wildly through my long silver hair and I had to brush back a strand to see
what was there in front of me. I felt that this was what I was supposed to
do, that something beckoned me from the distance. There it was – indeed –
there it was again: That faint, recurring motion far off that seemed to
breathe through the calmness of the underbrush, like a call from the other
side, but there was no one shouting. My grip on the gnarled staff I held
in my hand became tighter.
There was something, someone; lying on the ground,
helpless, a hand reaching out at me from afar. The figure was engulfed by
a dozen dispersed trees, huddled around him were boughs and roots, and
whoever the figure was, it was shaking in the night’s piercing, chilly
breeze. Yet a wide clearing stretched between us, with wafts of thick,
damp mist drifting slowly over the tall grasses, enwrapping a boulder here
and there, curling around a stump, a late traveler.
Yes, now I saw it with
certainty – there was a traveler over there on the other side. Barely able
to move, but with the determination to do so, I stretched my arm in the
direction of the stranger. Tried to shout, but my voice failed me. I
looked around. I was freezing. The trees and trees that stood behind the
invisible line where the clearing ended and the forest began were staring
at me, yet they remained as they were: unmoving, silent, watching. Once
more I tried to clamber to my feet, but couldn’t; the cold earth seemed to
have a firm, painful grip on me. Only with my eyes I succeeded in
traversing the clearing and reach the stranger, who must have got aware of
my misery. Yet whoever it was, the figure didn’t give any indication of
getting up from the gnarled seat and approach me. Neither could I even
tell whether it was man or woman: The stranger wore a long gown and was
sitting in front of a small hill, on a structure that appeared to resemble
a wooden throne, made out of gnarled roots. And there was long silver hair
dancing in the wind, and a gaze that had been peering at me already for
quite some time.
Finally, I managed to crank my neck further, noticing
that it was a massive tree in front of which the figure was sitting. Truly
it was magnificent. So huge was the tree, and so shining white, it even
became more radiant and glorious the higher it rose. The lean trunk held
hundreds and hundreds of sturdy, far reaching boughs, and on each one of
them thousands of tiny, incredibly thin twigs stretched all over the
night’s sky. They were like the intricate veins of a leaf, however the
tree was reaching out into the infinity of what lay beyond, glowing
brighter than any stars ever could, the further up they grew. I had to
avert my eyes after a while as it all appeared so brilliant, and I lost
tree and stranger for a moment when I looked away. Yet I sensed somehow
that the sight helped to make my strength return.
But then, when I attempted
once more to move my ice-cold bones, get up and approach the stranger, I
had a weird sensation. I could have sworn that there was a shadow peeling
off of me, even though there were barely shadows cast in the middle of the
night’s scarce moonlight. But what I perceived was a silhouette of myself,
or a shadow of a person that passed through me, a figure that became one
with the fog which was rolling over the clearing, a shape that merged into
it. Calmly, silently, the specter moved forward while I stayed back,
cradled by gnarled hands, as a silent watcher. Whatever it was, it floated
without a sound, without touching the earth, or so it appeared, the light
of the moon’s crescent illuminating the eerie scene of a swimmer wading
away from me through a sea of mist. Holding my breath, I looked on,
following its course, but then the shape stopped in the middle of the
clearing, and waited. An owl's hoot sounded in the distance.
I looked at the other side
where I had seen the stranger, stranded on the shore of the misty ocean
between us. However, there was no one there anymore on the other side: Yet
a presence all of a sudden could be felt in the midst of the clearing, a
human shape, fog swirling around it.
I got up from my throne, calling to the stranger in the
haze to join me. An owl hooted close by, loud and clear.
The piercing windy sough
finally made me stop. I couldn’t say where it originated from, but when I
heard it realization came that I was standing in the mist covered
clearing, like a dinghy drifting in the wide open sea. There were strange
wooden creaking and groaning noises for a moment far off, then everything
turned quiet again. I looked around. Not a single other soul was out
there. The stranger had gone and I was all alone. Only the crescent of the
moon kept me company.
Wearily I pulled my coat tighter and dragged myself to
the other side of the clearing. I was exhausted, beaten and prayed for a
spot to find shelter from my suffering. Upon arriving at the other side I
found a naturally formed niche. It was made out of an urban’s enormous
sturdy roots, just as if they were meant to invite anyone who passed by to
take a rest. And so I did.
An abandoned walking stick lay next to the roots, I
noticed; someone must have forgotten it there. I bent down to grab it,
maybe just to have something to hold on to. At least it reminded me of
other travelers, who might share my fate at this very moment. An owl’s
wings were flapping somewhere close by as I finally sat down. I spotted
something too above me, or so I thought, but it quickly disappeared in the
“I’ll never find
it...” were the last words I heard someone mumble. As I dozed off I
wondered who had spoken them.
Morning had broken with the
tender calls of the forest’s birds, doing their share to awaken my aching
bones. The sun fell on my face, bathing it with warmth and a sense of
bliss, and a calm breeze swept over my sleepy features. I sat up and
turned my head towards the blazing light out there, enjoying its caress
for a few further moments before I finally opened my eyes to look around.
The room was small, but cozy.
At the end of the bed stood a chair with my clothes on it, next to it a
wooden trunk. To my left, next to the door, was a long dresser with the
usual utensils you expect from that kind of furniture – an assortment of
combs, a wash-bowl, a few untouched towels next to it, a mirror of course
on top, and, interestingly, an hourglass. I looked at the latter for a
while, still half asleep, as it seemed to be such an unusual item to be
found in a bedroom. I admired its three-legged stand and especially the
beautiful carvings of the three wooden columns surrounding the fragile
glass structure, showing dancing figures, intertwined in what appeared to
be boughs, leaves and flowers. Only after a while of staring at the
hourglass I noticed again what had intrigued me instantly when my eye had
fallen on it: It was running. The trickle was slow, yet incessant, hardly
recognizable, tiny grains of sand sinking down from the upper bulb through
the narrow tube in the middle, constantly adding to the heap at the
bottom. Right now there was only very little sand left at the top bulb.
I got up, dipped my hands in
the wash-bowl and rubbed my face with the water before I got dressed. For
a while I just stood there at the open window, enjoying the view of the
forest below. I took in the soft breeze that smelled of grasses full of
dew, of wood, flowers, herbs and berries, and with its idyllic aroma the
air brought long forgotten memories.
Then I caught someone in the corner of my eye: A person
was walking along the well-trodden path that went by the cottage. I stayed
at the window a while longer and watched, recognizing that the person was
actually a lady. She was holding an umbrella in one hand, protecting her
fair skin from the intense fires of the Injèrá, and an apple in the other.
As she became aware of me observing her, she paused and turned halfway
around in my direction.
Actually, I was a little embarrassed when it happened,
caught off-guard while watching a perfect stranger, but the lady just
smiled and waved at me enthusiastically with the hand in which she held
the fruit. Surprised by the friendly reaction I smiled back and lifted my
hand to greet her as well. However, she didn’t say anything, rather turned
away the next instant and continued her walk until she was out of sight,
swallowed by the trees.
Eventually I disappeared as well. I grabbed my map from
the nightstand and headed downstairs.
“Good morning,” the innkeeper greeted. “I hope you had
a good night’s sleep?”
“To be honest, I’m not sure,” I answered. “I tend to
have vivid dreams from time to time, and I guess tonight was no
“Well, this is not
unusual for late travelers around these woods, or so I’ve heard. The night
is wicked. It is alive with every kind of lore and legend.” The innkeeper
moved his head around in a peculiar way, eyeing me for a bit from all
sides. While appearing somewhat odd in his own way, he was a friendly
looking fellow with a broad moustache, receding hairline and a twinkle in
his eye. “Not at all unusual for late travelers,” he repeated. “And you
didn’t arrive that early either, I think.”
“Did I? I cannot remember
anymore what exactly happened yesterday. But at least I have managed to
“Well, well, so you
say,” the man replied, rubbing his chin. “Just make sure to watch your
memories. Signs and portents, omens and visions are abundant around these
woods, and all unveils itself if you just open your eyes. At least that’s
the hearsay. Signs and portents! Not that I believe in any of them. All
that talk might just as well be hogwash.”
“You make me curious... What
exactly is it about these woods?” I inquired with interest.
“So you say you wander around
here and haven’t got a clue?” The innkeeper laughed heartily.
Before he continued he
brought some breakfast at the table where I’ve sat down. The old man laid
out bread, cheese, some apples, juice and milk.
Then he pulled up a chair and
began to explain: “Some say, parts of the woods are enchanted and tell the
most wondrous things they supposedly witness. Seeing strange phenomena and
stuff, talking to people that possibly can’t be there, experiencing
adventures they don’t even believe themselves when they tell others. And
they claim to have meandered at paths that clearly don’t exist around here
– or not anymore. I of all people should know!”
His voice turned ominous.
“Others would call the woods outright haunted. Ah, there’s many a tale,
half of them haven’t got a grain of truth in them, I bet. Of whispers, of
watchers I’ve heard, waiting near the moor and of wisps that try to lure
you there, make you stumble into their trap. The woods are alive some say:
Giant spiders lurk in the deeper recesses; there are ghosts and
gobbleswaps – beings that pretend to be what they aren’t. If they devour
you they become what you’ve been, see with your eyes, live with your body
and feast on your soul, only to put up the same charade for the next
victim they chance upon...”
The innkeeper rolled his eyes in disbelief. “Well,
you’ll never come out the same way you’ve entered the woods, so much I do
believe. But there are no such things as ghosts and gobbleswaps, I tell
you. It must be all only in the people’s minds. Once someone gets
enwrapped with talk about such tales, it doesn’t take long until they
claim to have seen things of their own, yet it all just springs from their
imagination, that’s what I say!”
He shook his head. “Anyway: What are you up if you
don’t know anything about this place at all?”
“I’ve come to visit an old
friend,” I assured the innkeeper and took a good mouthful of the bread and
a sip of milk. “Maybe you can help me,” I added, pulling out my map and
putting it on the table. “I’m supposed to find this pond and a lodge close
to it, but I guess that didn’t quite work out as planned yesterday. Maybe
you can give me directions.”
“Ah, I see.” The innkeeper glanced at the map. “Well,
you’ve nearly made it anyway already. What you’re looking for is straight
ahead that way, more or less.” He got up, went to the window and pointed
at the well-trodden path where I had seen the lady walk earlier.
“That’s it? That simple?” I
asked, following the line that marked the path on my map with a finger.
Indeed, now that I looked at it again, I found it led right to my
destination. Sure, there were some turns, but it seemed impossible to miss
the pond now. “Ah, maybe that lady with the umbrella was also heading for
the pond?” I suggested. “You know, the one that just passed by here a
little while ago... – One of your guests by chance?”
“Lady? Umbrella? Guest?” The
innkeeper looked confused.
“Well, yes, there was a lady out there when I got up
and looked outside. She was walking along that very same path you just
mentioned. I assumed she spent the night here as well.”
The innkeeper shrugged.
“Can’t help you there, friend, but no lady was here tonight. – Ah...” He
smirked. “Now I understand! Is that the one you might be looking for?”
“It cannot be her,” I
replied. “She’s not a friend of mine; at least I didn’t recognize her from
the distance.” I considered it a moment. “But don’t worry about it, I was
just curious,” I then said. I finished my breakfast and pushed the bread
basket back to the innkeeper.
“Say, do you have many visitors here in the midst of
the woods at all? It’s a fairly remote place after all.”
“Every night, my friend,” the
innkeeper answered. “Every night at least one. Though you’ve been the only
guest last night. Yesterday we had a gentleman around though, the day
before a poet of sorts, but that’s about it for this week. And about your
lady: ‘t would be pretty unusual for a lady with or without umbrella to
take a stroll around these parts,” the old man argued. “As you said
yourself: We’re pretty far away from town, so unless you’re supposed to be
here you aren’t.”
Having finished my business here I got up. “Well, be it
as it may – thanks for the food and help at any rate. I need to be off
then. And maybe I’ll even chance upon that lady and get to the bottom of
“You do that,” the
innkeeper said and smiled as I stood up.
A while later I was out in
the open, walking that well-trodden path that would finally bring me to my
goal. I looked back at the inn, a straw-thatched cottage that stood in the
midst of a small clearing, engulfed by trees on all sides. The multitude
of paths that led to it from various directions surprised me: there were
small, winding paths amidst dense trees, other paths were straight, yet
leading through the underbrush, some were broader than others, some hardly
detectable if you weren’t looking for them. I was on my way on one of
them, finally leaving the inn behind.
Enjoying the walk and the scenery I was hoping for the
pond to appear behind every tiny mound I climbed with fervor, after each
bend I followed, yet after an hour or two of walking I still had no luck
with arriving anywhere. Already I began to silently curse to myself,
wondering why I hadn’t asked the innkeeper how far it would actually take
me to get to the pond. The certainty that I would eventually arrive didn’t
seem to be that much of a prospect while walking.
Here and there I came along
trails that crossed mine, yet my well-trodden path just went straight on,
so I didn’t pay any attention to other options that offered themselves. So
I continued, wherever the monotony of my pace dictated me to go.
Until I reached a crossing.
Someone was standing there, whistling – and waiting.
“And Trum-Baroll again with
you, my friend,” the dwarf said. A broad smirk spread over his face,
despite the red beard he was sporting. “Better twice than not at all.”
“Blessings from the Twelve to
you as well,” I replied. “Good to meet someone else in the middle of this
forest maze. I already feared to be the only one passing through.”
“I’m not walking, but
standing,” the dwarf objected. “Though I catch your drift, traveler.”
“But may I ask why you said
‘again’?” I wanted to know.
“Again?” The dwarf raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, when you greeted me.
You said ‘again’ and ‘Better twice than not at all’ if I remember
“Ah, that, of
course! Well, because this time it’s for real, I admit that,” the dwarf
I looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“Now, now, we’ve met before,
haven’t we?” the little fellow claimed. “You told me so yourself, back
then! Though I had no idea what you were talking about...”
“Have we? Have I? When? Are
you fooling me?” The questions blurted out of me, one after the other,
demanding answers. I brightened up a little as a thought crossed my mind:
“Ah, I understand now… You might not per chance be the one who wrote that
note and wanted to talk to me for some reason? Are you the one living in
the lodge near the pond?” I pondered aloud. “Maybe I just cannot remember
who you are right now? Would you be so kind as to refresh my memory?”
I pulled out the piece of
paper from my backpack and handed it over to the dwarf.
But he just shook his head.
“May the Stonefathers’ iron gaze strike me if I know what you’re talking
about! No offense, but you’re thinking too much, my friend. No, I haven’t
written any note that I’m aware of, nor do I live in a lodge by the pond.
Strange concept, dwarves living at lodges by some pond!” The dwarf
remarked with disdain.
Then he began telling his weird tale. “But in order to
refresh your memory: See, first you went along and jumped at me just a
while ago, here on this very spot. Told me that you knew me, yet you
couldn’t explain. I gave you some fruit as you seemed a bit confused, and
admittedly, I still don’t see much of an improvement since then.” He
stroked his beard, lost in thought. “Now that I think about it: Back then
you said that you knew me, yet I didn’t. Now I say that I know you, yet
you don’t. So let’s just call it even, then, fine?”
He wrinkled his nose. “And to
make that perfectly clear: Regardless how many times you might run into
me, at some point we should both remember that we’ve met before. At least
I do now, and if you do as well next time, we might already be two. – Want
I protested. “I... I
haven’t met you before!”
“Don’t get me started on all that again,” the dwarf
snapped. “We’ve been through that already. – Fruit?”
“Now take this fruit, as I
know that you’ve enjoyed it the last time you came around. So if you
enjoyed it back then, why wouldn’t you now? – Unless you’re full already,
I didn’t know for a
moment what to say. So I just thanked the dwarf and took his apple. But
then I just had to outright confront him with a strange thought
that started plaguing me. “Just one thing: You know, I’ve been talking to
the innkeeper back there, who told me that some people claim strange
things are transpiring in this forest.”
“Like what?” the dwarf said,
a bit vexed that I was still around and kept on pestering him.
“Well, like this,” I
suggested. “People meeting others that aren’t really there, sort of. And
the way you’re talking, I don’t know if you’re for real or if I’m just
imagining you. I’m walking and walking for hours, it’s as if I’m going in
circles… After all I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, you know?
So maybe there really is something magical to these woods!”
“Interesting point you make,”
the dwarf replied. “I ought to consider it. Also interesting: telling
me! After having stood on this spot for so long, seeing you pass by
again and again and explaining to me that you possibly can’t be there, and
you weren’t there the first time we met either, I wonder if there isn’t
some truth in what you say. And the one I’ve been waiting for still not
arriving and all, you know. – One question, though, friend, er...
stranger... or whatever...”
“See that apple in your hand, my dear apparition?”
“Er… Uhm… Yes? What about
“It’s not speaking to you, is
it? – Then take it with you and perhaps question it later. One never knows
when it might start talking,” the dwarf rasped. “And if it doesn’t start
talking...” He leaned forward and whispered his last words: “Eat it!”
And with that he shoved me further.
“Er... And about the pond?” I asked looking back. I
still had to know, weird dwarf or not. “Is it...”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s right
ahead, just go on,” the dwarf answered. “It’s there, it’s there, it’s
always been there. And as you tend to come across people and things,
sometimes twice, I’m sure you will manage to get there as well, at least
once.” He made a motion with his hand to be off and so I finally went on,
ate my apple and left this most unusual encounter behind.
As I plodded along I wondered
what it all meant. Truth be told, with the unsatisfying encounter my
desperation had risen. Again. At least I had got some fruit out of it.
Suddenly the trees cleared.
One by one my steady companions dropped away left and right with every
step I took, letting bright blue sky and the warm caressing fire of the
Injèrá through. Full of expectation I could almost smell the water ahead
and felt delighted that after such a long exhausting walk I would finally
be there where I was supposed to be. I stepped out of the forest and...
Yes, there she was, standing
in the middle of a meadow.
I saw that she had turned her umbrella by now into a
walking stick and was strolling through the tall grasses and flowers,
bending down here and there to smell the aroma of the various plants. So
we had the same goal I assumed and looked forward to the company.
I planned already to ask her where she had come from and what she was
doing all alone deep down in the forest. Well, and what am I? I
thought, amusing myself.
Thus I entered the meadow. Yet, the more I approached,
the more it dawned on me that the figure wasn’t a lady at all strolling
through the grasses, or rather standing in midst the grasses, right now.
No, it was a young man with his back turned to me, and what I thought at
first to be an umbrella was in fact nothing but an ordinary walking stick.
Nevertheless, I continued on towards the figure - maybe he had written the
note to get me here. But as he seemed not to notice me, I called out to
My voice drowned.
It was swept away in the
sudden forceful gale that stormed over the meadow with a roar, bending
bushes and branches, swirling leaves as if let loose from somewhere behind
me. I ducked and turned around to locate the source. The stranger I had
been following did exactly the same.
Yet the next instant everything was calm again. The
wind died as fast as it had hit us. Not a single blade of grass was moving
as I found myself squatting between all those many different kinds of
flowers that grew around me, knee-high, nearly covering me now altogether,
squatting as I was. And then there was that sound of wood hitting stone, a
muffled single thud close by. I spun around, then stood up.
The man was gone. He seemed
to have vanished into thin air, as if taken by the wind.
I went to the spot where I
had seen him last and discovered a rock placed in the midst of the grass,
hardly visible as it was almost overgrown. The upper side was flat,
slightly tilted and a cane with a silver pommel leaned next to it. There
were also runes engraved on the surface of the stone which looked elvish
to me, but I couldn’t be sure.
I knelt down near what I thought must be a tombstone
and touched the rock, letting my fingers move over the indented letters.
The stone felt warm in the sunlight. A soft breeze sprang up and the sea
of grasses took on to sway around me as if drunken, touched again by the
wind. All those colorful flowers and grasses that made up the meadow, the
yellows, blues and reds, the oranges and purples were driven by the same
motion, taken by an invisible hand that rocked them there and back again,
there and back, on that circling, dizzying, beautiful journey. Like waves
far out in the endless ocean so did everything dance in the morning sun,
and I watched, lost in thought, my hand on the warm stone in front of me.
There and back again, there and back.
“Who might you have been?” I asked, looking at
the rock. But I was unable to decipher the runes, and the wind wouldn’t
I was torn out of my reverie when a faint singsong
mingled with the soft soughing of the wind. At first it seemed
indistinguishable as I didn’t quite recognize its presence, but then it
turned into something of its own, something alive, distinct from the
sounds around me, sounds made by the wind, like the swaying of the grass.
Yes, as a gust picked up again, I heard something or someone howling with
it. Almost terrified I looked up when I became aware of a loud voice
mimicking the swell of the wind and then reverberating with it as it ebbed
away again: With the last breath of the wind the voice also lost its
I grabbed the cane
next to the stone, more as a weapon than anything else, unsure what to
expect. I looked up.
The elf stood just a stone’s throw away from me. He was
so close that I gasped when I spotted him. Wearing a simple grey cowl and
a rope tied around his waist, he stood there with his arms opened wide as
if to greet the wind. His long white hair that framed his delicate
features danced in the breeze to which he was singing. He had his eyes
closed, and only when the wind ceased completely, he opened them to look
“Have no fear, friend,” he
said with a soothing calmness.
What... Who... Why...? I thought. I don’t know
if what I was muttering under my breath was the same thing that occupied
my mind, though. I was staring at the elf, stumped how he had got there
without me noticing.
“I read in your eyes that you want to know what I’m
here for, how I happened to be here and who I am,” the elf said.
Still perched next to the
stone I nodded, unable to move.
“I’m here to pray. To be with the Goddess, to prepare.
To listen to and understand that what moves everything else, to accompany
the wind, so that I’ll be with him once he’s not with me anymore.” As the
wind had gone, he let his arms sink down, hiding them under his wide cowl.
“And I’ve come to meet you,” the elf finished.
“You know me?” I asked
flatly. “How come that I don’t recognize you then? Were you the one who
sent me that message to come to the pond?”
“Of course I know you. The
wind knows everyone,” the elf replied. “But I see no pond here – do you? I
also wouldn’t know where that place you speak of might be found. I fear
that I also haven’t sent any message.” His hair began to drift again in
the breeze as the wind picked up once more, and the grasses continued to
sway around me like the waves out in the open sea.
“Then why are you here to
meet me?” I interjected, my voice taut. “You said you’ve come because of
me. How could this be?”
“Yet why is it that you want to know this answer so
badly? Couldn’t I ask exactly the same? And would you know an answer to
that?” the elf returned the question. “It was meant that we meet, and thus
I’m here, and so are you.”
“I... I...” I didn’t know what to make of him, tried to
order my thoughts. “What are these God forsaken woods anyway?” I finally
burst out. “And how can you pray at this place? It must be doomed! I don’t
get anywhere, and you tell me there is no such place I’m looking for. I
doubt that someone is even out there for me! There’s no one here!”
The elf remained calm. “But
you and I are here, aren’t we? Then there’s somebody here.”
“Well, of course I’m here!” I
threw at him in my anger. “That’s the whole point! I shouldn’t be here in
the first place.”
“Then who wrote this message you mentioned?” the elf
“I... I don’t know! And
you... you appear out of nothing, just like the one I’ve been following
all of a sudden was just… gone. How... how... is that even possible? – Are
you a ghost?” I looked at the tombstone with the elvish runes on it. “Are
you... the one buried down there? Am I dead as well, so that I can speak
to you now? What is happening?”
The elf laughed. “What answer might a mortal find on
what life and death really mean if one’s just that, a mortal? I trust the
wind knows more though, and he’s willing to share. But you look very alive
to me, if you must know, wandering that far out in the woods, pursuing
noble goals of which you don’t know where they’ll lead you. You might be
late, but not late enough. – Ah, you’ve dreamed well, I guess, otherwise
you wouldn’t be talking to me right now.”
“What...? Is it all
a dream then?” I fired back. “Did you just say that I’ve been dreaming all
along? Am I dreaming that I’m standing here in front of you, talking
“You dream as much as I do,” the elf said.
“It must be as I
cannot understand... Strange things happen in these woods, and dreams
aren’t any better!”
The elf smirked. “Strange things happen everywhere if
strange things find the mind to see them. Imagine a tired traveler who
doesn’t make it home. Wouldn’t he dream that he actually rests in a warm
cozy place, while he’s still out there in the cold? Wouldn’t that one
imagine the most wondrous things? That someone might even dream about
things everyone takes for granted, like getting up the next morning… Maybe
the dream would be about continuing the journey and reach the goal the
traveler set out for?”
I pondered his words, a certain uneasiness taking hold
“What the one calls a dream
another one calls real, so what advice could I give if I don’t know which
side you’re on?” the elf said. “And would someone from the other side
understand someone reaching out from the yonder shore? Ask any elf and she
might say that it’s all a dream, so I guess you’ve found someone
partial to that way of thinking. The Goddess always dreams, but there are
some who believe that Her Dream must be real and you might happen to be
one of those.”
I looked around, anxiety mounting. “If it were all a
dream: Could I just open my eyes and the dream would be over?”
“If this is what you really
want, I guess you could,” the elf nodded. “At least it’s worth a try –
unless you’re dreaming within a dream. Or in case it’s all not exactly as
it seems.” A wry, knowing smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
“However, should you wake up, well, you might not learn those things you
so desperately want to know: like about that stone you’ve found, or about
who I am. But you could try to wake up, of course. Just open your eyes and
simply forget, just like everything you dreamed last night.”
I hesitated. “You might give
me those answers first,” I then decided.
“Those you just mentioned.
Tell me about that stone: let me know if it is a tombstone, and who is
buried here, if it is. And I’d like to know who you are.”
“Nothing easier than that,”
the elf replied. “To answer your first question, just read the runes you
find on the rock and you will get what you desire.”
“But I cannot decipher
Styrásh...” I objected.
“Maybe these aren’t runes after all,” the elf said. “I
would know. Have a look again. Maybe it’s a tombstone neither. It could as
well be just a landmark, a stone to mark a path.”
“There is no path here in the
middle of a meadow,” I argued, but then re-checked the letters on the
stone. Two words had been engraved. They were ancient Styrásh runes; now
that the elf denied it, I was even surer. And the more I looked at them,
the more certain I became that I couldn’t understand them. I wondered
however why there weren’t any numbers or at least runes that might
represent numbers though, no birth, no death dates. There were just two
words. Maybe it indeed wasn’t a tomb stone. Whatever it was, I couldn’t
find the answer the elf had promised.
I looked up and was about to say something.
But the elf just smiled and
motioned not to give up. “Look again,” he repeated. “Sometimes you have to
keep looking to see.”
The runes remained unchanged, secretive. Yet there was
one in the very center that had the shape of an X with lines at the top
and the bottom. For some reason they reminded me of something. I pondered
for a while until I finally remembered where I had seen the shape: only
And I remembered how I
had got up to touch it.
I admired its three-legged stand and especially the
beautiful carvings of the three wooden columns surrounding the fragile
glass structure, showing dancing figures, intertwined in what appeared to
be boughs, leaves and flowers. Only after a while of staring at the
hourglass I noticed again what had intrigued me instantly when my eye had
fallen on it: It was running. The trickle was slow, yet incessant, hardly
recognizable, tiny grains of sand sinking down from the upper bulb through
the narrow tube in the middle, constantly adding to the heap at the
bottom. Right now there was only very little sand left at the top bulb.
I wondered for a while how
long it would take the sand to pour from top to bottom, and how it got
started in the first place. Finally, I grabbed it, weighed it in my hands.
For a moment I was watching my trusted image in the mirror above the
dresser, observing myself how I held the unusual item, contemplating.
After a while I spotted the image turning the hourglass on its head and
putting it down again. A glint sparkled in the figure’s eye.
But there was no time to
tarry, I had to be off. I had to get dressed, take my map from the
nightstand and head downstairs.
forest was calm. Almost eerily calm. I found myself walking on a
well-trodden path that led through dense rows of trees, a sight I had got
used to by now. In fact, the scenery looked overly familiar somehow, the
mounds I came across, the bends I left behind me, the trees nearby. It was
as if I had already been there not too long ago.
Every now and again I came
along trails that crossed mine, yet the well-trodden path just went
straight on, so I didn’t pay any attention to other options that offered
themselves. So I continued. Until I reached a crossing where someone was
standing, whistling – and waiting.
“And Trum-Baroll with you, my friend,” the dwarf said.
“Blessings from the Twelve,”
I answered the greeting, recognizing the weird dwarf and his long red
beard immediately. “So I run into you again! While I can’t say that I’m
happy to have ended up at the very same spot, for some reason it just
The dwarf eyed me
suspiciously. “Aha, so it did? Spoke Come-Along... See, I don’t mind
having company while I’m waiting, but preferably with those that haven’t
lost their marbles.”
“Don’t you recognize
me?” I said, vexed.
“Sure, sure,” the dwarf said. “If we’re old friends,
just tell me my name and I’ll remember. It’s sort of a password thing, you
“I... I...” I stuttered.
“Actually I didn’t ask you about that back then. We, well... It’s just
that I’ve come along here and we talked for a while about...”
“Yes?” the dwarf stroked his
beard. “I’m listening...”
“About...” I hesitated, recalling the dwarf’s words
back then, suggesting that he had seen me before. And I remembered that I
hadn’t recognized him. Now the tables had turned and while I wanted to
explain, I couldn’t. The stubborn dwarf wouldn’t believe me!
“I...” I struggled.
“I have some waiting business
to do,” the dwarf reminded me, impatience speaking out of him. “I’m
expecting someone and someone might be here any moment now, so get on with
it or leave me to my task as I’ll leave you to yours.”
“But, well...” Words failed
“See, fellow, let’s forget
about this. Let’s say I didn’t even see you coming. Nor rambling. – Here,
have some fruit instead,” the dwarf said and handed me an apple. “You
might need it, wherever you choose to be heading.”
I took it absent-mindedly.
There was no point in asking the dwarf about the way to the pond, he
already had shown it to me once, and I ended up on the very spot again.
Perhaps I ought to ask the dwarf about his name, I considered. Maybe tell
him mine, and we’d both stand a good chance to recognize each other should
we happen to meet again. That sounded like a good plan for a change.
As I was still lost in
thought, muttering, stuttering under my breath, I saw the dwarf looking up
at me in a peculiar way.
“On the other hand,” he said. “I have to admit... I
mean, now that you brought it up... Maybe you are indeed... Yes, it could
be... Hey!” he rasped, then poked my hip. “Hey, you sleeping?” Finally, he
tugged my coat. “Hey!”
“I... I...” It was the last thing I can remember about
I opened my eyes.
A light voice floated
through the air.
I must have been dozing, but it was a voice that
brought me back. It repeated its simple message in a steady rhythm, and
every time it resounded, I imagined something I couldn’t quite pinpoint
drifting, swirling above me. Like a feather the short sound was dancing,
gliding, sinking, and picking up after a while with renewed strength. It
was like the chiming of a bell, seemed otherworldly, ethereal. As my doze
wore away I tried to decipher what the voice was saying. And eventually, I
I was startled,
suddenly wide awake: The voice was calling my name.
I found myself in the midst
of the forest, sitting at the foot of a gigantic tree.
A half-eaten apple lay next
to me, along with the map and the letter I had brought with me. As awoke I
looked up for a moment, my eyes admiring the tree’s reach for the skies.
At the ground a good portion of the urban’s large roots enwrapped the
outer rim of the hill on which the tree itself towered majestically. So
there I sat and ate my apple, maybe a stone’s throw away from the trunk in
front of the mound, in a small naturally formed niche. It was formed by
the urban’s enormous sturdy roots, just as if they were meant to invite
anyone who passed by to take a rest. And so I had done.
But I had rested enough. I
grabbed letter and map and got up to be on my way. The voice was still
echoing through the forest, calling my name.
There was a clearing a
distance ahead, trees in the far distance. Somehow things looked different
all of a sudden, though I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Maybe it
was the light, as I couldn’t figure out whether it was dusk or dawn. There
was neither sun nor moon hanging over the treetops, everything was bathed
in a weird shimmer of twilight. And there was a strong scent of flowers,
wood and… tranquility… I had never before experienced in such intensity.
Aye, tranquility indeed: there was no sound to be heard. Not anymore. I
stepped into the clearing.
There she was. My ears hadn’t deceived me.
A little girl squatted there
putting a bouquet together in the middle of the meadow. A soft wind played
with the colorful flowers and long grasses, swayed the yellows, blues and
reds, the oranges and purples, all those flowers around the girl, and they
made her long silver-grey hair dance with them. She had adorned her head
with a wreath of twigs and petals, and it made her look like a little
princess wearing a tiara.
“What are you doing here?” I asked as I approached,
The girl looked up at
me, a broad smile on her face. “I’m picking flowers!” she told me. She
laughed at what she must have considered a rather silly question. Dimples
formed in her cheeks, her bright eyes glinted back at me in amusement.
Picture description. Illustration of Monsonius' most famous tale by
Masterbard Judith of Bardavos. Image drawn by
“Might you tell me your name
then, little one?”
“I don’t have a name,” the girl said and smiled while
she finished her bouquet with a lovely cerubell. “Not yet,” she added.
I didn’t know what to say for
a moment. “You don’t have a name?” I couldn’t believe it.
“Have you got one?”
she snapped back as if it were the most natural question in the world to
“Of course I’ve got one!” I
replied. “How couldn’t I? You just called me by it! In fact, you woke me
up!” I felt my forehead wrinkling a bit. She was playing a game with me!
“I haven’t woken nobody up!”
the girl was steadfast in her denial. She frowned back at me. “I’ve only
been picking flowers! Told you!”
I looked around, but didn’t see anybody else who could
have called me. There were standing stones in the meadow here and there
that peeked out of the knee-high grass, barely noticeable at first glance.
On all of them were runes. Letting my eyes wander from stone to stone I
discovered that they surrounded the both of us, forming a perfect circle.
I hunkered down to talk with
the girl face to face. “Say, you didn’t hear anybody else call me either?
– Because I heard someone, I’m sure about that. So you must have as well.”
“No, just saw you wake up and
wondered if it’s you,” the girl replied drily.
“If it’s me? What
are you trying to say?”
“But it’s you alright,” the girl nodded, very confident
now. “Here: You’ve lost that!” She bent down to pick up something hidden
in the high grass and put it in my hands.
“It’s not mine!” I protested
as I found myself holding... a cane with the silver pommel. “Someone has…”
“And you’ve got a map!” she
continued. “I knew it the moment you sat down, looked at it and ate your
apple. But I thought you ought to rest first before you journey on.”
“Thanks for that, but you
still haven’t answered my question!” I insisted, a bit annoyed. “What is
it you want from me? Are you lost? Do you need someone to help you find
your way back? Then you’re lucky that you found me, indeed.” I tried to
appear confident. “But look, I have to tell you that I strayed from the
path myself, and all I care about right now is getting out again. Well,
maybe we can find back together, though I fear I don’t trust this map.”
“Oh!” the girl blurted out
and jumped up. “It’s nice that you want to be my friend! But don’t you
worry, I’m not lost. But if you want I’ll get you where you are supposed
to be. I’m here to guide you!” And with that she darted off through the
“What?” Taken aback by
the turn of events I remained rooted to the spot.
The girl turned around after
a while and waved back at me with her bouquet. “Come!” she called and
continued running away from me.
“Who sent you?” Standing up I now shouted after her.
But she was already too far away.
For a moment I was undecided. I didn’t know her and
what she was up to, whether she spoke the truth or not, what to believe
and what not in these woods. There are ghosts and gobbleswaps in these
woods – beings that pretend to be what they aren’t, I remembered the
words of the innkeeper.
But I saw my feet start to follow the girl, to run as
she more and more disappeared in the distance. And the more my eyes seemed
to lose her, the faster I ran.
The girl was heading straight towards the other end of
the meadow, running nimbly through the knee-high grass, so that I had
difficulties catching up. An array of trees was looking on from either
side, standing like sentinels, watching the scene in silence. I also
became aware of smoke rising above some of the treetops nearby, and then I
spotted a straw-thatched cottage tucked behind a batch of trees.
I wanted to call the girl’s
name, but realized that she hadn’t told me.
“We have to...” I began,
pointing towards the smoke. “You cannot...” But I didn’t finish my
sentences, seeing her more and more escape my eyes.
“Wait!” I yelled at the top
of my voice, hoping to make her aware of the cottage. Someone must have
been looking for her! But every “Wait!” I threw at her she answered with
an even more incited “Come!” and I had no other choice than to follow.
Every now and then I glanced
back over my shoulder. After a while the smoke from the cottage was barely
recognizable anymore. Then it was gone.
The forest around me changed,
turned dark and murky. Mist, thick and damp, emerged between the trees and
rolled over parts of the underbrush, wrapping itself spookily around the
stumps found here and there. The trees, which had kept their distance from
the clearing for a while, now seemed to close in on us. I ran and ran and
at some point I understood that I wasn’t running through a clearing
anymore, but through a broader passageway winding through the woods. From
most of the trees I passed hung vines and creepers, and the crooked way
these trunks grew out of the ground, it appeared as though they were
crippled by the burden they had to carry. Everything was dark and
foreboding. The ground had become moist and mossy, even the air felt wet
and heavy. Odd sounds of croaking toads and chirping insects accompanied
I had arrived in the forest’s
I stopped for a moment
to catch my breath. As I stood, the girl also paused in the distance,
waving back at me.
The path now led through a large area dominated by
bleak water, some of it greyish, some black as tar. I hadn’t really
noticed how far I had entered the bog, only when I came to a standstill I
realized how deep I was into it already. Suddenly the fog curling over the
ground seemed to conceal unknown dangers: pools of ooze to sink into,
greasy roots to slip on, and whatever path I had been following became
impossible to recognize. Dead trees emerged like the hands of gigantic
skeletons from the murky depths to my left and right, rotted plants
floated on the surface, some of them appeared to wrap around objects,
maybe they were even corpses – or at least that’s what my imagination made
out of them.
I looked down to my
feet and saw that the ground I had been walking on was nothing but a strip
anymore. I couldn’t keep up with the girl, had to change my pace.
“Take care!” I shouted.
“Don’t rush through these swamps! You might trip and drown! Wait for me!
The sound of the girl’s
snicker reached my ears, though I only faintly saw her bright skirt
bobbing and down in the distance.
“How beautiful it is!” the words of her soft voice rang
out. She had come to a halt now, but it wasn’t enough to catch up with
her. Off and away she was again.
As I reached the spot where the girl had been standing
before, I discovered a gigantic spider’s web spanning the vast space
between two dead trees. Several similar sights presented themselves close
by: threads glittering, arrays of water drops clinging to them. The nets
looked strong like ropes.
In the increasing darkness I sensed something moving. I
could have sworn a shadowy figure had emerged from the waters near one of
the islets. Another noise close made me think that the same thing happened
on the other side of the path. Something stirred behind the scarce,
half-drowned trees over there, crawled along with me. A few steps
further I became more and more convinced of it.
It was hopeless. I couldn’t
see the girl anymore. For a moment I had even forgotten about her.
“Where are you?” I
shouted, but got no reply.
I repeated my call. Again and again.
Every few steps I called out
for her, but if there was an answer at all it lay in the monotonous
gurgling sounds with which the swamp used to converse with me. The faster
the day waned, the more disquieting the sounds became. The phantoms,
existing or not, didn’t move in on me though, and they stayed quiet,
looming far off.
I had started to run again. My steps beat the ground,
hard and unforgiving, driven by desperation, ignited by my anger. I began
murmuring, accusing, condemning myself of having lost the girl without
even getting to know her. I had lost her and my only hope. Yes, I mumbled,
stumbled, tumbled. But my footsteps and my calls echoed again and again
unheard through the vastness of the swamp. Night was falling rapidly now.
“Where are you?” I wheezed.
“Where are you?”
When I was at the brink of giving up, I saw a soft
light. It flickered and blinked far, far out there. The glowing something
was floating above the waters, crossed the swamp, like the girl’s soft
voice did once, I thought, the girl’s soft voice that had awakened me from
For a while I observed
the strange phenomenon. The light was a soft blue at first, but it
pulsated, slowly gaining in intensity, only to faint again abruptly,
almost disappearing as a whole. Yet after a while the process was
repeated; only the light’s color had changed to an orange, then it turned
green, violet. The light moved all the time, it glided, snuck around, as
if it didn’t care in which direction it was heading. Often, from one
moment to the next, it sped up, shot ahead, slowed down again. After a
couple of times alternating between slowing down speeding up and changing
colors, the light came to a sudden halt.
I waited for the apparition
to move again, but it just remained there. Was it waiting? For a move from
my side? Was it aware of me? The light seemed to hover up and down at the
same spot, all the time pulsating, gaining and losing intensity, changing
colors, as if signaling.
I moved closer, making sure that my cane touched safe
ground before I made a step. But each step was difficult, as darkness had
engulfed me entirely by now and I was anxious that a sinister presence
might jump at me any moment and drag me into the unknown depths of the
swamp – as it might have done already with that poor girl. The cloak of
the night was icy and I was freezing to my bones. That light however
promised warmth. Maybe it was my last anchor too, and I didn’t care where
it came from. I had to find out what it was.
At last I arrived at
the apparition. It turned out to be a glowing sphere, no larger than a
palmspan or two. It had shifted to a shining bright white by now, and its
pulsating beat was gone. As I stepped into the sphere’s circle of light I
understood that everything else outside had already drowned in the gloom
like a past memory. There was no way back anymore.
The orb seemed
inviting, warm and patient in its wondrous, unwavering way, a companion
that bathed everything in its brilliant existence. I felt secure in its
reach. Not that I could reach it though, as it was hovering above me, yet
had unveiled only a small area of my surroundings, as if this was all
there was. And to my amazement once I had got used to it, I discovered
that there was a man-made structure on the far side of this little white
world I found myself in: a hut. While it appeared to be small and
ramshackle, it seemed heaven sent. Even an old oil lamp was hanging next
to the door, and so I stepped closer and took the lamp from the hook.
The next instant everything
My little white world had ceased to exist. Again, I was
bewildered. Nothing in this forest appeared to be the way I was used to. I
tried to feel my way in utter darkness towards the hut and already feared
that it was gone as well.
But it wasn’t.
All of a sudden the lamp lit up, and there I was again:
Someone standing in front of a ramshackle hut. It seemed to beckon a late
night visitor to enter. I let my hand run along the wooden handle, then
pushed the door open...
Quickly I stepped in, turned around, and bolted the
door. No dark creatures were invited.
There was nobody inside. The space the abode offered
was scarce; it barely provided room for a single person. At least there
was a table, a single chair next to it, a brittle shelf with a few jars on
it, and a bed. That was all there was to it. Apparently none of these
things had been used for quite some time. Cobwebs hung in every corner,
and there was no one to keep me company except a broom leaning at the end
of the bed, which I discovered after having a closer look, along with a
torn pair of shoes, and a footstool.
For a while I searched the whole hut to find anything
helpful, edible or even mildly interesting to get me through the night.
The jars contained some unidentifiable substances; dust had conquered the
territory under the bed. But there was really nothing else, and the
cobwebs didn’t look menacing enough either to make me worry.
Well, except for that book. I
almost missed it under a thick layer of dust. Yet it lay open already on
the table as if waiting for a reader.
I finally leaned my cane against the boards and sat
down to examine the tome. There was no title on it on the leather binding
– not at the front, nor at its spine –, or the letters were beyond
recognition. What I soon learned too was that the pages demanded to be
treated with care, old and worn and yellowed by age as they were. Any
moment I feared them to crumble in my hands. But well, the book was the
only thing I had got, so I leafed through it a bit. Eventually I began to
read, starting at a passage from the already open page.
And as I read I stumbled upon
some oddly familiar lines, which went like this:
The jars contained some
unidentifiable substances; dust had conquered the territory under the bed.
But there was really nothing else, and the cobwebs didn’t look menacing
enough either to make me worry.
Picture description. The ramshackle hut in the middle of the swamp... Image drawn by
For a while I searched the
whole hut to find anything helpful, edible or even mildly interesting to
get me through the night. Cobwebs hung in every corner, and there was no
one to keep me company except a broom leaning at the end of the bed, which
I discovered after having a closer look, along with a torn pair of shoes,
and a footstool. Apparently none of these things had been used for quite
some time. At least there was a table, a single chair next to it, a
brittle shelf with a few jars on it, and a bed. That was all there was to
it. The space the abode offered was scarce; it barely provided room for a
single person. There was nobody inside.
I finally leaned my cane
against the boards and sat down. I sat for a while, staring at the wooden
wall, where the flickering of my lamp cast unsteady shadows.
But there was something else
on the wall I was gazing at, I realized now. A single picture was attached
to it, and I was excited to have made a new discovery in my lonesome
abode, something to feast my eyes on: It was a painting of a ship, though
it seemed to... well, I couldn’t see it clearly, or there was something
depicted on the painting that couldn’t possibly be there, it was one of
those things. So I took my lamp and got up to look at it more closely.
Indeed, it was the image of a
huge ship. The dramatic scene showed the bow jutting high up in the air as
if the vessel was battling a major storm, the sails at least were
billowing in the wind – but it was the rest of the picture that made me
wonder. There were no signs whatsoever of any storm aside from the
billowed sails. In fact, the ship wasn’t out at high sea at all. Its hull
was sitting on top of a gigantic gnarled tree, in the midst of a landscape
that could be described as bogy at best. There was no movement suggested
in this part of the picture: The trees, the brush, all stood still,
contradicting the upper half of the canvas.
I drew closer to scan the
painting in more detail and perhaps find a person on board. Yes, there was
someone, there was...
...suddenly a loud rumble. And not only that, an
ear-piercing scratching noise followed soon after.
The ground began moving, the
I staggered back.
The picture fell to the floor with a noisy thud. Which
is where I soon found myself as well, struggling to grasp the lamp and
prevent it from smashing and set everything on fire.
The rumbling and scratching,
the shaking and moving, the jerking and jolting went on for a while, as if
it were never to end. But it did eventually, and everything turned quiet
again as sudden as it had begun.
I clambered to my feet, helped by my cane, and then,
while I was nursing my bruises, spotted… the trapdoor! The square clearly
set itself apart from the rest of the wooden floor, and there was a ring
attached to it.
I moved over to inspect it. Still I felt dizzy to the
point of nausea and had difficulties keeping my balance, but all that
didn’t prevent me from grabbing that ring and pull the trapdoor open with
all the strength I could muster.
A couple of wooden stairs were revealed, leading
further down into the darkness beneath. I took my lamp and descended.
There was a long corridor
down there. I had expected a damp basement and maybe a loamy floor at
best, but my steps made hollow, wooden sounds upon walking: Not only was I
treading on boards, there was empty space underneath too. Even the walls
to my side and the ceiling were constructed of sturdy planks.
As I walked along I sensed
that the ground was still moving, and I had to cling to a pole every few
steps in order to remain upright. However, after a while I understood that
the floor was actually rocking: Rhythmically it went back and forth.
Strange creaking and groaning noises accompanied me on my walk, as if the
wood were shifting, and other strange noises reached me from above, like a
furious wind fighting with heavy cloth.
There were footsteps beat on
floorboards, and someone shouted in heavy sailor’s slang “Man o’er board!”
Further busy boots hitting the wooden floor joined in, repeating the
message over and over again. And yet, the further I progressed in the
corridor and the more often the shout was repeated it seemed to transform
into something else. I wasn’t sure anymore if the voices didn’t actually
say “Man on board!”
The corridor ended with a door, bolted with a wooden
bar, and two steps leading up to it. Tingling with anticipation I lifted
the bar and opened the door. A spacious room dipped in half-light greeted
me on the other side. As I entered the gentle rocking of the floor ceased
from one moment to the other.
I found myself in some sort of study, furnished with
marvelous antique pieces – little creatures like drakelets, snakes and
butterflies were carved into the frames of a large wardrobe, intertwined
with mysterious vines, flowers and grasses. There was a cloth stand with a
robe and a hat on it, wooden trunks here and there, and above all
bookcases with tomes and scrolls all over the place. Several maps were
decorating on the walls. A fireplace made out of brick dominated one side
of the room.
I extinguished my lamp
as I discovered there was a window on the other side to which I felt
drawn. Wherever I had ended up in and however it had happened, it was
daylight that shone through that window on the carpeted floor! As I moved
towards it I saw that a bright and sunny day was waiting outside. Yet, it
wasn’t a window after all I realized a few steps further, rather there was
a doorway leading out into the open.
Stepping out I walked onto a wooden pier that led into
a quiet pond ahead. The waters were encircled on all other sides by trees
and covered with haze in the distance. Faint outlines of mountains
stretched over the treetops. The Injèrá was already way above the horizon
and made the water on the pond glitter as if touched by divine dust that
had just fallen out of the skies.
For a moment I stood there on the pier, gazing into the
water, watching the sun dance around my own reflection. The pond,
it came to me. I have finally arrived...
“The Twelve with you!” a soft
voice spoke from behind me. “It’s rare to have company out here, I must
say, but I’m glad that you’ve made it. Welcome!”
I spun around and saw a man
sitting at a desk in the corner of the room I had stepped out of, watching
me through the doorway as I stood on the pier. He had a quill in his right
hand and a bottle of ink placed next to him, hidden a bit among all the
parchments that piled up on the desk. He bowed to me, but remained seated.
“And the Twelve with you,” I
returned the greeting, outwardly calm, yet anxious as I failed to
recognize his voice. I stepped back into the room towards the man.
“Did you come by boat?” the
stranger asked. “The morning is cool, but at least the waters are calm,
“Yes, I mean… No, I
didn’t arrive by… I…” I couldn’t finish. I wasn’t sure anymore.
“Well, however you came, have
a seat, my friend!” the young man said, and I obliged. “A beautiful day,
isn’t it? Too bad it’s ending already… One might wish to gaze forever into
these waters, don’t you think so too? – Have you heard? If you look long
and hard into the lake it will come to life in form of someone you wish it
to be. At least so the lore goes...” He seemed to be talking more to
himself than to me.
I looked at the young man while he briefly returned to
his sheets. He silently read a line again, letting his hand hover a moment
above the parchment as if contemplating what to write next, giving me the
time to watch him intently.
“…to watch him intently,” I heard him whisper
as he wrote.
I must admit that I
didn’t recognize him. This was strange, given the fact that I – through
the most wondrous ways and means – had finally arrived at that lodge next
to the pond, just as the letter had wanted me to. Yet here I was, looking
at the face of someone I had never seen before. The man appeared to be
young; his hair was long and flowing. Somehow he made a bit of a sad and
melancholic impression, yet he also was contemplative, calm, collected.
Finally, he finished writing the sentence he had begun, and then his
attention returned to me.
“Sorry, just had to get that one down,” the stranger
said, then let his quill rest on the parchment. He looked at me. “But I’m
not the one you expected to meet?” he asked.
“You might just be right
about that,” I answered, nodding.
“Was it someone else you intended to meet out here? Or
did you just get lost? Any particular reason why you’ve made such a long
trip to reach my humble abode?”
“Well,” I said, a bit disappointed. “I hoped that I’d
get an answer from you.”
“So? And why is that?” the man asked back, looking a
bit bewildered himself.
“There is this letter I received, which told me to find
someone at a lodge out here. I’ve even got a map!” I pulled the map out to
prove it. “But even though I actually found this place now, more by
accident though I fear, I guess you might as well say that I’m just as
lost, as I wouldn’t know how to get back anymore.”
“Let me see.” The young man
took the map. “You are right, it is a map to this place, at least
I think so. It’s not easy to read, but nevertheless, it led you here, so
you managed somehow to follow the directions. I guess the map served its
purpose.” He took the letter, read it attentively, though he only shook
his head when he was through. “But this I’ve never written, which is odd.
The one who must have sent you that note had to know this place. He must
have brought you here for a reason.”
I considered his words for a while.
“Yet, alas, there’s nobody
here...” the man regretted.
“Well, you and I are here, aren’t we? Then
there’s somebody here, right?” I chuckled, if only for myself. “And that’s
at least a start…” I sighed. “Say, what are you doing here anyway, out in
the woods, far away from everything?”
“Guess it’s obvious, isn’t it?” the young man said and
pointed at his desk. “I’m a writer, a poet if you want. I feel inspired by
this wonderful place, which is the reason why I sought it out.”
“You must be the one the
innkeeper mentioned,” I recalled.
“Yes, indeed, I guess I am,” the poet said. “So I see
you’ve come around quite a bit in these woods yourself!” He smiled.
“Actually, if you want to know, I’m right now working on a tale that takes
place just within these woods – a fascinating scenery for sure to go for a
little walk, to let one’s eyes wander, the mind roam, the senses feel, a
place to experience the known or the unknown and observe how they both
converse with each other.”
He indicated a shelf full of books. “There are stories
about these woods, ah, you might have heard the one or the other. Of the
magic that is at work here: the dark, the light, even the colorful kind if
you so want, you name it. It all provides a splendid backdrop for the tale
I’m writing. I guess I’ll call it ‘The Journey’.”
The poet took his quill in
his hand, and, absorbed in thought, dipped it into the ink bottle, in
order to retrace a few letters on his parchment. “See, it is a story about
someone who gets lost in the midst of a magical place like this, or thinks
so. But how can one get lost? Doesn’t everyone always end up somewhere,
I have to ask? Who can tell where one is supposed to end up if one doesn’t
know exactly where one’s heading? And our traveler might not be that
lucky. But each step just leads exactly to where one’s supposed to be.”
The poet leaned back.
“Getting lost... well, that lies in the eye of the beholder, I would say.
And the woods for sure hold deep secrets, but though they might not be the
same for everyone, they challenge us to be seen. Other eyes might look at
the same things differently. Some eyes need to look again and again to see
just once. Well, but isn’t it ‘Open your eyes!’ that you hear people say
to those who already have their eyes open, but cannot see? Yet others
suggest not to look too closely and instead shut their eyes to see
The poet shuffled together some of his parchments. “But
who might be the judge? Who can discern right from wrong? Even the most
magical place cannot tell one how to look at it, and regardless how often
one walks into such a place, one might always see something different.” He
put parchment after parchment in various drawers while he continued
talking. “What the traveler in my tale might see, well, I cannot say. That
it will get him closer to what he’s destined for, that’s for sure. And if
the dance has to start again, so be it, the magic of the woods always
He finished sorting
his papers. “Rest assured however that while within the woods the
possibilities are endless, there’s always a way out, that one way out, at
least in my tale. Then again, even if one gets out: What is inside and
what is outside when the world around us is magical every way you look at
The poet, after having
finished his little speech, looked at me with genuine interest. “So what
have you seen? Maybe I can make it part of my tale?”
“It’s... it’s... difficult to
say,” I stammered, not knowing what to mention. Or where to begin. One of
The young man nodded. “I see.
Well, you haven’t found yet what you’ve been looking for, I give you that.
And as you said before: You also don’t know how to get out again, so I
think the magic of these woods might look dampened to you. ¬– At any rate:
There’s at least that one way out I know of, and it might just work for
you as well – if you’re interested. It’s easier to value what you’ve been
through when you leave it behind and can look back.”
“A way out? As I guess I’ll
hardly meet the one I’m supposed to meet here, I could as well need some
directions for finding my way back,” I concluded.
The poet laughed. “Well, you
never quite get what you might expect around here, so be careful what you
wish for. But I can try to give you some advice: See, you got in somehow,
so your best bet is to get out the same way again, it’s as simple as that.
Incidentally, hat’s part of the tale I’m telling as well.”
“That doesn’t sound very
convincing,” I objected. “I don’t even know where I am!”
“What a strange observation,”
the poet said. “You’re here with me, of course. Correct me if I’m wrong,
but didn’t you tell me that yourself? You’re here with me. Reading.”
I froze for a moment.
“Remember when you arrived in
the hut a while ago?” the poet explained. “How you searched around and
finally sat down? How you became aware of that book lying on the table,
right in front of you? Remember how you began reading, and, well, what can
I say? You still haven’t stopped...”
I jumped up.
My heart was racing; I was
breathing rapidly, looked around and found myself standing near a table,
the dusty book still lying innocently on it. Yes, there was no doubt: I
recognized the ramshackle hut; it was unchanged, as real as it could be.
But so the encounter with the poet had appeared. Cold sweat dripped from
my brow. The flickering of the oil lamp still cast unsteady shadows on the
opposite wall as if to convey a hidden message I was unable to grasp.
I grabbed the lamp,
illuminated every corner of the hut with it as I had done before. As if in
fever I searched the wall, determined to uncover that picture with the
unsettling scene on it, the entrance to this fascinating location I had
visited. But there was no such picture.
Getting on my knees I looked
for a trapdoor of any kind, moved rags, furniture and broom, grabbed the
cane I had found to knock on every single board in the hope of discovering
a hollow spot – nothing. I got up again, exhausted.
Despair had me in its firm
grip again. I sat down, thinking. My lamp was still there like an old
friend, quietly flickering on the table, casting unsteady shadows on the
wall opposite of me. And it was still waiting, that book. In its calm way
of just being there it reminded me that I had been foolish in trying to
find a way out of here by searching walls or floorboards. A shiver ran
down my spine as I realized that all I was supposed to do was read on.
So I picked up the book once
more and continued where I had left oft:
I found myself reading again.
I was just a few words in when something else caught my attention, as if
by magic. In the corner of my eye I noticed the trapdoor. It was still
Within moments I saw myself
up again with the lamp in hand, descending down the stairs, leaving the
picture behind I had been searching for so desperately a moment before,
which was now lying on the floor again. Noisily I pelted down the wooden
corridor, ignoring the rocking and creaking that accompanied me, didn’t
listen anymore to the shouts from above, whatever they said. I darted
towards that door which would lead me into the poet’s chamber, determined
that nothing and nobody would stop me to get the answers I needed. As I
reached the door with the wooden bar, I paused for a moment, caught my
breath. The bolt was already removed, just as I had left it, and so I
The curtains were
drawn now and the room was very dark, except for a dim light source that
stood on the desk of the poet, an oil lamp, just like the one I had come
with myself. The poet was still there, writing in the scarce light,
dipping his quill again and again in the bottle of ink next to him,
finishing a sentence or two before pausing.
He turned around, stood up
and said: “Thank you for waiting!”
I was about to say something, only to become aware of a
silhouette of a figure that had been standing next to the desk all along.
The poet had obviously addressed that person and hadn’t noticed my
presence at all.
I tensed and made a step further back, hid deeper in
the shadows. With a mixture of gnawing unease and keen interest I observed
what they might have to discuss.
“The Twelve with you!” the poet said. “It’s rare to
have company out here, I must say. But I’m glad that you’ve managed to
come all the way here.”
“Well, it seems I had at least one valid reason to
undertake such a hazardous journey”, the second person replied. “I’ve
found something precious that is yours and can now return it to its
rightful owner.” The stranger pulled something out from under the cloak. I
tried to catch a glimpse of what it was, but failed.
The poet made a dismissive
gesture with his hand. “Oh, there are further valid reasons, I’m sure –
you might have yet to become aware of them...” I saw him smile as he
seemed to take the item he had received in his hand. “But indeed, it’s not
easy to get as far as this place, so imagine my joy that someone delivers
something to me that I thought I had lost forever.”
“Don’t mention it,” the
stranger answered. “It’s been my pleasure. The only thing I’m worrying
about however is how I’ll find back from this remote place.”
The poet chuckled. “Yes, I
guess with your wish you are not alone... – But I think I can give you
something in return, which will prove to you that the journey was not in
vain for you either.” With that he took something from his desk and handed
it to the stranger. “This is all you need, my friend, it’s the key that
brought you into these woods, and it will get you out of them. Take it.
Use it. You’re welcome.”
I thought the time had come now to reveal myself to the
poet and the one he was talking to – and find out about this special item
myself. I had to.
But the when I wanted to step out of the shadows, I
heard the poet address the stranger again: “But excuse me, my friend,
we’ve had company for a while...” With that he stepped forward and
approached me directly.
Be it as it may, I thought and emerged from
the shadows as well.
The stranger too turned around to face me.
Overcome with curiosity my
eyes immediately fell on the item in the stranger’s hand, which the poet
had called ‘a key’. But it didn’t look like a key at all: It was a quill.
I found myself back in the hut, once again sitting at
the table. The flickering of the oil lamp hadn’t ceased to cast unsteady
shadows on the wall. I was still sweating, my heart beating. The trapdoor
was gone, and so was the picture on the wall. Everything else in the room
was in slight disarray, stemming from my futile attempts to find a way
where there wasn’t any.
Yet I sensed that something was different now.
Something was missing. Looking around I noticed that the cane was gone –
the cane, which had still been leaning at the wall next to me just a few
moments ago. I remembered how I had put it there after using its silver
pommel to knock on the floor boards. But with the desperate attempt to
search for the trapdoor, the cane seemed to have gone too.
Ignoring the odd
circumstance, I eagerly returned to the book. In avid anticipation I
leafed a few pages further in order to see what this magical tome might
still have in store for me.
But all the following
pages were... empty. Just empty. I turned page after page right until the
end, and then went back again: Nothing. Not a single word was written
there. The book was more than halfway filled with blank pages. Finally,
split between anguish and hope I returned to the page I had just been
reading and let my eyes wander to the line where I had left of:
“Still reading?” the
poet asked and looked at me as I came out of the shadows.
“As you can see, yes I am
indeed,” I replied. I looked around, but the stranger was gone now. It was
just me and the poet now. “Who was it that you just met? What is this all
about?” I demanded.
“I hoped that I’d get an answer from you,” the young
man said and smiled benignly as he repeated the words I had said to him
when we had first met. “Alas, you need to leave the woods first to get to
an answer I fear, and I won’t be able to follow you there, so you see my
dilemma. Can’t say I didn’t try to help you. – However, feel free to pay a
visit any time, it’s been a pleasure to have accompanied you on your
journey!” Then he turned around and sat down again on his desk, searching
for a new quill between his many parchments. Finally, he was lucky and
returned to writing as if I wasn’t there anymore.
I approached him and looked
over his shoulder. What could possibly be that important to write down now
and ignore my questions? I read:
I pulled the book closer and turned the page, eager to
see how it would all end.
But there were only a few words left that concluded the
tale. The ones I am reading just now. And as I finish reading them I look
up, and wonder...