I was sat in the centre of a clearing, my face turned up towards the sun, feeling its warmth, when he found me.
‘Halloo, halloo!’ the stranger cried as he scampered into view. I shook my head to clear my thoughts. It felt as though I had been sitting in the clearing for an eternity and, for a moment, I could not decide if he was but a vision or a dream. His clothing did not incline me to consider him real. A white, hooded cloak obscured his face. His arms and torso were bound in strips of light, grey cloth. White trousers clung closely to his legs, tucked into boots of brown leather. In his hand he held a staff of pure white wood. He ran smartly across the clearing to reach me and hit me stoutly on the arm with his staff, dispelling any ideas that I may have imagined him entirely.
‘What are you doing, my friend?’ he enquired, jabbing me gently with the end of his staff.
‘Ow!’ I batted it away and rose reluctantly from my seat. My legs and arms ached from inactivity and I had to shake the stiffness from my limbs. The stranger just watched, leaning on his staff and smiling.
‘It is not often I meet strangers in the forest, friend. What brings you to such a wonderful woodland as this?’ He spread his arms and span around on the spot.
‘I am lost,’ I said. ‘I do not know where I am.’
‘Be reassured, you are not the first to arrive here feeling that way. And you will not be the last.’ He hit me again with his staff. ‘Come, walk with me through the forest. Maybe I can set you on your way.’
We walked along leafy lanes between the trees and I wondered how I had not found these paths before.
‘Where are we going?’ I asked my guide.
‘North,’ he replied. ‘I’m going to see my sister. The proud, puffed up, preening princess that she is.’
‘You do not like your sister?’
‘It is more that I am not like my sister. In all ways we are each other’s opposite.’ He paused in his walking and thwacked his staff against a tree in an absent-minded manner. ‘It is all but impossible for us to be in the same place at the same time. It is only here,’ and he gestured towards the expanse of forest that surrounded us as he spoke, ‘it is here that we can meet. So we do not meet very often.’
Our procession continued in silence for a while. My guide seemed to be dwelling on some dark thoughts and I decided not to intrude. I did not enjoy being hit with large wooden sticks.
I soon lost track of how long we had been walking for. The path led us ever on – northwards, I presumed – but there were no landmarks by which to gauge the distance. Only tree after tree after tree. Tall, solid sentinels, standing proudly at the side of the path. Each one looked the same as the one before, and the same as the one after. Hoping that my guide’s mind had meandered back to a less violent place, I decided to break the uncompanionable silence we were sharing.
‘There are a lot of trees,’ I offered.
He looked at me as if I were an idiot. ‘You’re an idiot,’ he said, and he hit me around the back of my knees with his staff.
The first notable change in our surroundings came not long after my ill-fated attempt to engage him in conversation. I was busy constructing a list of colourful insults to throw at my guide when the trees began to spread out. Larger and larger gaps appeared between their trunks and smaller saplings fought for the light and space.
The track led us through the trees to the edge of a large lake. Wispy clouds drifted across the far shore, beyond which I could see the tops of a million more trees.
‘My God! How big is this forest?’
My guide smiled at me and placed an arm around my shoulders. ‘How big do you think it is, friend?’ he asked. ‘However vast your answer, it is bigger than that.’
‘But it can’t be,’ I replied, defying the evidence of my own eyes. ‘I was in the forest before, and it wasn’t this big.’
My guide sat down on a flat rock at the water’s edge. He pulled off his boots, letting his bare feet dangle into the water. ‘Why don’t you tell me how you came to be here?’
‘I was in a race.’
‘A race?’ His eyes sparkled. ‘A competition? A challenge. Sweat and pain and endurance. The rush of the wind in your face, your heart hammering, blood pumping, as you struggle ever onwards towards your goal. Did you win?’
‘I didn’t finish.’
‘That is a shame. I enjoy a good race; they fuel the ego.’
‘We were in the forest, following a path through the trees. They had marshals to point us in the right direction but, somehow, I went wrong. I was following a group of about four or five. And then I wasn’t.’ I sat down next to him and leant against the rock. It felt cold against my back. ‘I tried to follow the path back to where I had come from, but I just ended up getting more and more confused.’
‘Paths and tracks are like that I’m afraid. They can be a little changeable, confusing the careless traveller. It is in their nature I suppose.’
‘Paths don’t change,’ I countered. ‘At least, not in the space of a few minutes. Over time perhaps, but not how you’re describing.’
‘Of course they do. What is a path if not a line between two places? Sometimes places move. What then? A path cannot stay still or it would lead nowhere. Paths adapt. It is not their fault. But I do wonder sometimes if they are not a little calculating, luring the unwary away from their destinations, spinning them around and spitting them out somewhere quite unexpected. Paths cannot be trusted. I cannot understand why more people do not demand something a little more definite to guide them.’
I decided to ignore his theory. He was clearly a little unhinged. But, equally as clear to me was the understanding that he knew where he was heading in this vast forest and I did not. It would not pay to upset him.
‘Did you pass any strangers in the forest?’ he continued.
‘The last marshal I passed. She was different.’
‘I’m not sure, but she was. As soon as I was past her I knew that something wasn’t quite right. She had a strange aura around her. Does that make any sense?’
‘Indeed it does, my friend. There are many who live in the forests of the world, amongst the trees. Most are harmless, a few are dangerous and some are absolute bastards. You would have done better to have avoided this one I feel, but sometimes that is how life goes. Tell me, was she delightful and enchanting? Were you enraptured by her beauty?’
‘I barely noticed her. She just pointed off into the woods and I ran in that direction. It was more that she felt wrong. Something about her was odd. Different.’
‘I fear you sold yourself far too cheaply my friend.’ He patted me softly on the shoulder and I felt like a small child. ‘If you are to be led astray by devious and seductive spirits, you ought at least to allow yourself to be seduced. It sounds as though you missed out on all the fun.’
‘Fun?’ It came out sounding angrier than I had meant. ‘I was terrified. Lost in the trees on my own. I must have walked and run for miles through the forest but wherever I went there were just more trees. Trees and trees and trees. And then it started to get dark. Then I really started to panic.’
My companion rested his staff across his lap and looked thoughtfully out across the lake. ‘Panic. A sensible emotion. The flute-playing faun is not easily avoided in the forests; they are his domain after all. I fear you failed in that regard. But now? Now you feel calmer?’
Strangely he was right. I was confused and I had no idea where we were going, but I was no longer afraid. The fear had gone.
I picked up a stone and skimmed it across the surface of the lake. ‘Why am I not frightened anymore?’ I asked.
‘You have moved on,’ he replied. ‘To where there is no fear. Will anybody miss you?’
Of course, why hadn’t I thought of that? ‘The race organisers! They will have to check that everyone gets back okay. They will see that my number hasn’t finished and someone will come looking for me.’
He looked at me strangely. ‘That’s not quite what I meant,’ he said quietly.
‘I could build a fire; send up smoke signals. Let them know where I am.’
‘I think not. They don’t take kindly to fire around here.’ He started to pull on his brown leather boots. ‘Come on, we still have a long way to travel.’
We walked around the lake, keeping close to the waterline. I looked out through the trees, across the lake, but the view barely changed. Everywhere, in all directions, there were trees.
‘What is she like, your sister?’ I asked.
‘She is stubborn and proud. She thinks that she is better than me. More important.’
‘Has she always been like that? Even when you were young?’
‘Our mother spat us out fully formed, my friend. And my sister’s animosity towards me was a complete thing even then. I cannot deny that she has her attractions, but do not I?’ He kicked a stone across the track in front of us. ‘She repulses me, and I her. It is not a good way for a brother and sister to be, but those are the roles that we have to play. Our mother knew what she was doing. Two lights in the darkness. Two immutable certainties.’
‘I am sorry, but I have no idea what you’re talking about’. I was worried that he might strike me again with his stick, but this time he did not.
‘My sister and I provide guidance. That is our purpose. We are the stakes in the ground from which you can measure your lives.’ He must have seen the continued confusion written across my face, for he stopped walking and turned to face me. ‘Imagine you are a traveller. What serves you best? You want a certainty on which to hang your hat.’
‘Everything is relative. You need to know where you are in relation to something certain.’
‘Like the sun,’ I suggested. ‘Sailors used to measure their position using the sun.’
‘Hah! The sun. A flaming ball of fire in the sky. Poor Helios in his chariot. I have a cousin who loves the sun. You may have crossed him; he’s very large around the middle. No, I have never shared his fondness for the sun. He and the goat and the crab can keep it. I am talking about tangible things.’ He took his staff and laid it across a rock that sat on the path, balancing it so it would swing freely around its centre.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked.
He spun the stick furiously. ‘Imagine a compass. This is the needle.’ Grabbing an end as it passed, he stilled the stick once more. ‘Where does the needle point?’
I looked at the end of the stick, pointing out into the trees. ‘It points north.’
‘And only north?’ he asked. I stared along the length of the stick to where he crouched, holding the end steady. His eyes were wide, his face full of encouragement. ‘Does a compass needle point in two directions?’
‘No, a compass needle points north,’ I replied, confused.
‘Hah!’ he cried again. Snatching up his staff, he hit me hard around the shoulders with it. ‘You’re an idiot.’
He stalked off along the path in silence.
It felt as though several hours had passed before he spoke again. It may only have been a few minutes. Time seemed to be slipping from me with every step. When he spoke again it was not to apologise for hitting me.
‘You do not realise where you are, do you?’ he asked.
I had to admit that I did not. Although a tree was a tree was a tree to me, I had begun to understand that this was no longer the same forest that I travelled through. ‘Where are we?’ I asked. ‘What happened to me?’
‘You have been led astray, my friend. Diverted from your path by a Yakshi, a woodland sprite. Quite likely for no purpose other than pure puckishness. They are not mean-spirited, just mischievous. And they do not understand humans. Not fully. They have not yet adjusted to your being here. There.’
‘Are they gods?’
‘Most certainly they are not mere gods. They are elementals, born of our mother Papatuanuku in the first forming of this world. You created the gods and the gods need you to sustain them. The elementals could not care less about you or whether you notice them or believe in them; they just are.’
I considered carefully his words. An understanding of what was happening to me lurked at the edge of my vision, but I feared its answers. I could smell its certainty. The finality of it frightened me.
‘There is no way back for me, is there?’ I let the knowing creep forward a few steps.
My companion hefted his staff and I flinched, but he merely swung it distractedly against the low hanging branches of a tree. ‘No, there is not.’
‘And can I stay here? Is that what happens next?’
‘Of course you can.’ This time he did swing his staff towards me, hitting me softly, almost playfully, on the arm. ‘This is it! You’ve made it! And you can stay, of that there is no question.’
‘But what do I do here? I haven’t seen anyone else here, only you. And I get the feeling that you are only a visitor. What happens after you have met your sister, will you leave again?’
My companion smiled. ‘So many questions my friend, but we have time for them all, do not fear. It is true, this is not my home and I cannot tarry here too long. That is not the task I was given. But I must meet my sister before I go; we have much to talk about. And even after I depart, you will not be alone here.’ He spread his arms wide, much as he had done before, in the clearing where we had first met, and span on the spot. ‘The forest is here.’
‘The forest,’ I repeated. And the knowing took another step forward. ‘If you hadn’t come along when you did then I think I would still be sat in that clearing. Is that my fate, to sit and stare at the sun, as unmoving as the trees around me? For heaven’s sake!’ I was angry now. ‘I might as well be one of the bloody trees in that case, if I’m going to sit there and act just like one.’
My companion looked at me.
‘Oh!’ I said, and the knowing washed over me like a wave.
‘Like I said, you’re an idiot.’
We walked on. I touched the trees as I passed them, running my hand across their rough bark, looking at them more carefully. I began to notice the differences between them, to see their individual nature written in the twists in their boughs, the spread of their leafy fingers.
‘How will you find your sister?’ I asked.
‘That is one of the benefits of being me,’ he replied with a smile. ‘Whichever way I walk, if I keep going long enough then I will find her. That is just the way these things work.’
‘I want to thank you,’ I said. ‘You were right. When we are lost, it is the certainties we crave. Even if we do not know where we are, we can be reassured that somewhere out there are two immovable points and, if only we can find them, then they can lead us out of the darkness. It may not sound like much, but when you have nothing left, then it is everything.’
He whacked me harmlessly with his stick. I smiled at him and he shrugged. ‘Is that not what poles are for?’
‘Whilst I now know the way I must go, I’m not sure that I’m quite ready to take that path. May I walk with you, South, awhile longer?’ I asked him.
‘Indeed you may, my pixilated pal. Indeed you may. Come, meet my sister. You shall see her attractions for yourself.’
He picked up his staff and strode off down the path. I looked up at the tall trees all around me. Their tops swayed gently in the wind as they stretched their arms up towards the warmth of the sun. Soon, I thought, and it made me smile. Turning back to the track before me, I stretched my arms and set off after my friend, following him further into the endless forest.