“The Walking-Stick Forest,” by Anna Tambour, is a dark fantasy about a recluse who creates collectible walking sticks in post-WWI Scotland by manipulating the woods somewhat like bonsais. He refuses a commission from a very rich, powerful man, never considering or caring about the consequences.
Like some other stories published on Tor.com, “The Walking-Stick Forest” contains scenes and situations some readers will find upsetting and/or repellent. [—The Editors]
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ellen Datlow.
It started like this. When the blackthorn trees were bare, Athol Farquar would pollard them—sawing them down to their gubbins, pruning them almost to the ground, just low enough so that, once the raw winter passed, a great number of new branches would shoot up quick, in a vertical panic of desperation while the sap ran strong. Come spring, there Athol would be in the thicket that was the forest, tying up (with soft woollen twist) the short young fresh-fleshed pinkies to the rods, and from that moment on they could push up all they liked, but every movement was caught and bent to measure.
Every day Athol would come, his woollen bonds stuffed in a pocket of a vest he’d made from his ancient khaki jacket; a girdle of wires loosely wrapped around his waist, and ready in his left fist, an ingenious set of grips he’d forged to shape the discipliners themselves, be they wire, iron, or his sculptured cages of beaten tin. Often he was bare-chested, his hands and arms hardened from years of smithing, so the thorns that could kill with a scratch were nothing to fear. Or maybe they were, but he didn’t pay them any more heed than he did the feisty rapier-sharp branch tips everywhere that he hadn’t pruned, which could have flicked his cheeks or eyes open. It was almost as if he enchanted the blackthorn. Thorns were his caressers. Branches bent to his will. And he loved bringing up his creations so much that many a moonlit night he spent bending, moulding, tending, admiring and listening, hearing and smelling the night breath of the forest.
The fact is, the pure air suited him. The sloes that the unpruned branches grew, purple and sour as a preacher’s face, suited him too; so every autumn, after the first frost, he’d fill a few sheepskins with the firm fresh plums and eat his fill before their skins lost their face-powder bloom. He macerated the rest of his pickings patiently till his sloe gin was devilishly smooth. He’d start his day with a drop of it in his mug of tarry tea, drunk surrounded by his forest.
The young trunks couldn’t help but grow, yet every day their own wills were subjugated more, till they were no longer something you’d think should have thorns and leaves but something leaping, roaring, splashing, slithering, dancing, moaning. Nothing so mundane as a tree, let alone a many-trunked bush. When a blackthorn walking-stick-to-be grew to this stage in life, he cut it. Farquar did almost no finishing after that. Even his seasoning and colouring was done without what he considered cosmetic abhorrences—painting, staining, shellacking, gluing pieces on. The only additions he ever made were: to the tip, he fitted a metal cap, robust but finely made as any goldsmith’s ring; and occasionally—to finish snakes, women, that sort of thing—he would inset eyes he made of the whisky-coloured cairngorm stone that only he knew underlaid the walking-stick forest.
Yet for all his ability to propagate treasures more unique than a Fabergé egg (which any master goldsmith can duplicate) he wasn’t vain about his gift, but moved, and ever more secretive. On a fateful day in the hell of 1915, he’d seen a chair made of contorted tree limbs; and in the ruins of a church found a pearl shaped like a sheep, and a shard of an ivory saint, its halo still proud. From them grew his plans to make walking sticks that looked alive, if he survived. He had prodigious skill and ingenuity, but had set out with modest aims, little imagining how the forest that he loved and protected bristled with life in ways he could never fathom. Take two of his masterpieces: a man petting a dog, and two playful lovers. Natural development? Bah! There was something preternatural going on. The blackthorn that grew at his guidance into such impossibilities trembled at his touch like a filly eager to be bridled.
Athol Farquar called no man master, and certainly didn’t bow to any god. He made his quietly famous sticks to order—never setting his discipliners on a shoot he didn’t know the future master of, and the shape this little innocent would grow up to be. He demanded to be paid first, and what he charged was so outrageous, he was heavily sought after. But he would only accept a client and an order if they met his unpredictable criteria. He made his considerable fortune on a few men and women who had everything, so they couldn’t get enough of his sticks.
These were collectors such as Mr. L____, who’d made his boodle in khaki dyes. His baronic front hall bristled with walking sticks, whangees, pikestaffs, shoot sticks that folded out into stools; tippling and sword canes; and though his taste ran to music hall, an opera cane whose head glittered with diamonds.
He was particularly proud of two vicious knot-ended clubs, “A shillelah and knopkierie,” he was fond of explaining. “See this shillelah with its head, like an Irishman’s, filled with lead? The effect of this, like its simple African cousin here: Indistinguishable! Tap a man’s head and you can scoop his brains out with a spoon.”
His ballroom looked like a museum—rows of glass cases filled with walking sticks made of precious metals, woods, and jewels. One find, he’d moved to his safe because he was not sure of it anymore after some nasty tittering by other collectors. The seller, a drinking buddy on that cruise ship to New York in 1920, had sworn: “It’s fair dinkum or strike me dead. Bavarian unicorn horn.”
All of Farquar’s customers had huge collections. Each begged to see him as soon as they found out about him, as if he had a cure for the incurable. He dealt with their fevers calmly but firmly, just as he did the most willful shoot or thickest trunk in his blackthorn thicket. When collectors yearned for Farquar, they wanted something as different as when the engorged gourmet wants, at long last, simply a drink of water.
Athol Farquar’s sticks were prized, like the holy grail, for their purity. Made only of the blackthorn, a wood as humble as the Saviour’s cup and crown. And no matter how elaborate the design, a Farquar walking stick was never whittled. If it looked as if its head were a ram’s horn, or a running dog, or a woman, that was purely a delusion caused by the natural development of the blackthorn when taken into hand by their maker.
There were some sticks Farquar made that he didn’t sell. These were working sticks—crooks he gave to the shepherds in the hills surrounding his little forest. For McAlister, he made a double-handed crook so that the old man could lean on it. Athol Farquar bent the length of this stick to complement the bow-shape of McAlister’s bandy legs, the result being that if you saw him at work peering out along the slopes, you’d think, Now, what a fine specimen of a man. They grow them well in these wild parts. Grayson liked to snag a sheep from the belly so as not to break a leg, so his stick had one great scoop atop, wide as an unshorn ram. Young Stephenson would want something sharp and fancy to twirl in the village on a Saturday night. Athol Farquar didn’t ask any of the shepherds first. He just thought he knew and made the sticks without consulting. Then he gave them out—and to each shepherd, something happened once the first touch of hand to wood was made. Somehow it became a part of him, as necessary as his legs.
These weren’t sentimental gifts. The shepherds and Farquar had a relationship that each wanted to maintain. Sheep in the blackthorn would be a danger to themselves, even without his disciplining rods and wires making the forest into a nest of traps. And sheep eating the tender shoots of blackthorn would cut each walking stick in the bud. So he maintained a fence against the sheep, a combination of hedge and sharp banks, so that they’d stay on the grassy slopes and not venture into the forest. The triangle of the forest formed a V, the broad part at the top rising up to the rounded mound where McAlister tramped in every weather. The two sides of the V were valleys. Stephenson roamed the slope on the other side of the valley to the right, and over that hill. Grayson’s land was on the left, his rise levelling out to become the closest thing to a plain in these contoured hills. The nearest village wasn’t much to talk about. A day’s drive by ass-cart, a brisk morning’s tramp for Farquar. There was also a scatter of haughty houses within view of the slopes, not that the shepherds nor Farquar had anything to do with the foreigners who tended to rent them, Londoners and such, the villagers said. Neither the shepherds nor Farquar nor anyone in the village had one of those motorized contraptions, though it was already 1924. Young Stephenson wanted one with all his heart but the only way he’d get out of being a shepherd was if he wanted to ‘herd’ wild cattle. Some Laird out Auchencruive way who thought to turn rubbish into gold was offering mad amounts of money to skilled shepherds to civilise them, for the cattle were not only stupidly ferocious but used their horns like bayonets. He fancied his looks, but no matter how hard he scrubbed himself, he smelled of sheep, and therefore, failure—whereas a man with engine muck under his fingernails wafted the City, adventure, romance, escape.
“The daevil is ut made that,” McAlister would say, laying on the brogue whenever he saw a vehicle, though there were precious few that made their way up to these parts, the roads being what they were, and the reasons, fewer. It wasn’t the contraptions he objected to. They’d not bothered him in the War. More, the people who swanned around in the beasts. And everyone here agreed.
Not one of the people who craved Farquar’s canes put a thought to where he lived, nor imagined his precious forest any more than a one of them had ever put a thought to, say, some tree that provided ebony, or the men who cut it. All correspondence was through the postmaster at Blair Atholl, a man who might as well have been a priest when it came to confidences. Farquar was so strict about meeting his clients in various remote inns and waysides he designated, that one tin-can magnate broke a leg leaping from a train and a moving-picture actress came down with quite useless hysteria.
Farquar’s wealth grew as great and discreetly as his fame. He had, however, the habit of thrift. So in every hole he made by pulling up a lump of cairngorm stone from his hidden warren of mines under the blackthorn roots, he stuck a dumpling of soil filled with the old-fashioned dosh he demanded: pre-1917 gold sovereigns.
No one local thought of him as anything more than a poverty-stricken craftsman, actually someone even poorer—because he had not even one rough Highland sheep—than the crofters who spent their winters weaving hoary lichen-dyed tweeds that were prized by Lairds, Lords, and those who with war fortunes, were paving their way to obtaining a Title. The crofter-weavers never knew what power they had, if only they’d learned worth, but the middlemen-buyers who made the rounds of cottages were fierce as wolves, and always bought with their lips curled.
So there Athol Farquar was—as there and unnoticeable as his thicket—and as uninteresting, anyone would have told you. What did he look like? A necessary face. His body? It wasn’t ailing. Otherwise, what decent person looked at a body?
She watched him from the point just below the forest, the point of the V, that deep watercressy place where the spring came out to run down between the two long-sided hills. She’d found and followed that spring, up past its calmness, up where it narrowed and rounded over rocks, up, her feet numb from the frigid waters where its banks were too steep to walk beside it, up towards its secret heart; into a region that half-comforted her with its secrecy, its terror. All around, the forest loomed—a tangled blackness that if rendered by an artist, must be something from a madhouse where the food might be rationed but not the ink, black accented with brilliant, dancing white. The moon was a searchlight. A light breeze made the forest sound like mice in a box of chocolates.
She had left home at the first call of the owls when the moon was already full, and now had been crouching, her ballet slipper-shod feet perched precariously in the stream. She was taking a drink of water from her dish of hands when she heard come, a man. He stopped just far enough away that she could see his dun-coloured vest and his bare muscular arms.
She watched him bend forward toward a branch, and just then, a cloud shifted. Moonlight cut them sharply into silhouettes. Her heart jumped. That branch looked like the reared-up head of a dying horse. The man held its neck while he reached down and . . . what? Was he pulling something up? He straightened out partly and kicked the ground in the area his hand must have been. Was he kicking something out or pushing something in? She couldn’t see. Then he turned away and disappeared into the messy blackness. She could hear him—creak, crackle, snap. He was tightening a wire here, stroking a green shoot there and nipping a leaf between his fingernails, not that she could see. As carefully as when she’d crept down the creaking stairs, she crept up the slippery bank . . . and was caught.
The more she struggled, the more thorns found a purchase. First it was her skirt, then the silly flounces in her jacket. Its uselessness annoyed her so much that she’d hated to take it, but as with all her clothes, she had no choice. And now her hair had shaken loose, pins scattering into the branches like so many other spiky shoots. Her unfashionable, wild, waist-length tangle was caught, spreading with each movement to be an ever-larger web.
“Farquar,” she called. “Mr. Farquar!” You idiot, she thought. It had to be him. Why did I wait?
She tossed her head and barely missed a thorn in the eye, and now her hair was so trapped that she couldn’t move. He was too far away now, the forest too dense. She couldn’t hear him at all, only frightening noises in the depths of night. The moonlight and small sounds only made everything look leering. There might be wolves here! Are there any wolves anymore, or are they just in stories? Tears flooded her eyes. Her cheeks mottled like a child’s. She wrenched as hard as she could, which only served to tear some hair from its roots. “You ninny!” she yelled, which helped a bit.
Suddenly he was there, in front of her, tsking. “What a muckle you’ve made.” His voice was deep but rough, his fingers gentle but skilled, and soon she was free. “Put up your blasted hair,” he said, handing her some twists of worsted. She hesitated and he turned her like a top, grabbed the great soft mass, wrapped it and bound it as expertly as some Roman maid.
But that was just craftsman’s luck. Since the War, he’d not been this close to another woman—to trouble.
His confusion soothed her, emboldened her. “You’re Mr. Farquar?”
“That I am,” he said without thinking. His instant reflex was always the honest response. And after that, he rarely said anything, not that he knew what to say now, with this—this girl up here, in the secret place—in the middle of the night. If ’twr a man . . . Farquar being the ex-blacksmith he was, one reason he kept to himself was his temper. In war, it had helped being able to beat a man’s brains in with one blow. In his regiment, they’d bet on him, till he stopped their fun and took, instead, to poetry and keeping by himself. Now this girl here.
“My father,” she said, ignoring his scowl, “will be up here tomorrow morning. . . . This morning.”
She was so matter-of-fact, he forgot she was a girl. “How can he?”
“He’s hired a detective and I heard them talking.”
“What do you want?”
“To warn you.” She didn’t act like a woman. She spoke simply and her eyes didn’t bat at him.
“You don’t know who I am.”
“I know who my father is. Richard Galveny.”
She was so straightforward, yet she bristled with life. He pulled her skirt free of another thorn. Richard Galveny. The name rang no bell.
“My name is Rose, not Cairngorm.”
“So what does this have to do with the price of cheese?”
“He wanted you to do the Rape of Cairngorm. You refused . . . Scratching your head won’t help you, but will this?”
She posed, with her head turned away.
“Aye.” His gut clenched. Richard Galveny. Richard. The man who had signed in a scrawl, and introduced himself as “Mr. Galveny.”
They had met at Garnshiel Bridge, that humpbacked thing along the old military road linking the two historic garrisons of Braemar and Corgarff, a place of Galveny’s choosing—“for romance,” he’d said in his letter. “Do please indulge me,” he’d written. “I’m besotted with history.” Farquar had believed him.
Farquar was waiting when his client arrived alone, driving himself in a motorcar. Galveny stopped the beast on the top of the hump and invited Farquar into the pines on the wild side of the bridge. The man was impeccably dressed, softly spoken. “Lovely day, don’t you know?” he said, and it was his voice that charmed Farquar. A voice made for poetry. The man also respected history. Farquar had been somewhat tense all morning, berating himself for breaking his own rule, indulging a client and putting himself out to meet at a place of the client’s choosing, though it wasn’t, to be honest, any problem for Farquar, who loved this country and had relished the ramble. “I think you’ll appreciate,” said Galveny, “the level of verisimilitude I demand. History and romance, don’t you know. Can you copy a picture from life?”
Farquar nodded reflexively, a little miffed at the doubt, but he was used to this sort of thing from clients. “You’ll think it’s alive.”
Galveny pulled the picture out of his breast pocket and held it in front of Farquar.
This girl—the one in front of him now—was the one in that disgusting picture.
Even when Farquar had thought the woman in that staged rape photograph a whore, he’d been revolted by the—the decency of the man.
Farquar had refused Galveny in two words, both filthy. Galveny made a gentlemanly threat in return, murmured in the voice of a mellifluous poet. Farquar had said he’d need to think about it. He told the truth. He needed time. He walked over the bridge and stood looking up at the bleak, blank-eyed stone inn. There wasn’t a soul around. Galveny’s motorcar waited like a patient dog, in the middle of the bridge.
Galveny had found himself a seat in the pines on a low stone cairn. When he saw that Farquar was returning, he rose and primly brushed off the seat of his Highland heather-tweed trousers—cut in that London tailor’s presumption of a Scottish baron’s kit. As they drew close enough to see each other’s eyes, Galveny laughed.
“So it’s settled then,” he said, and his handsome, politely annoyed, bland, upright-as-a-judge expression changed to one of mischief, like a boy stealing a pie from a ledge. “You’re a rogue, you are,” he laughed. “How much do you plan to skin me for, you canny Scot?”
“Just this,” said Farquar, and caned Galveny’s face till he would never look respectable again. Then he took the picture out of Galveny’s pocket and walked off while the man was still rolling around on the soft bed of pine needles in pools of his own making.
This was not the only instance of Farquar refusing to satisfy collectors. He’d had to discipline a few, mostly because they got greedy and had to have more of his canes. Or because they asked him to tell them secrets about or in some other way undermine the success of other fanatics who craved his works. Galveny, however, had been unique. The man was a monster, and this girl . . .
She was looking at him, not saying anything. Not being hysterical or making a scene like women do. Yet she was both young and, undoubtedly, a woman—in full bloom. She was, it hit him, the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
“Why did you come?” he demanded, suddenly suspicious. Why would she come?
“Why wouldn’t I?” she spat. “I know what you did. He’s coming to kill you. He’s hired a man called Skulley. D’you know him?”
“Who doesn’t in these parts? He’s lucky to be alive.”
“And Skulley’s got a dog.”
“Aye, that brute.”
“We’ve got to stop them.”
“Why?” Bloody hell, why? “So I caned your old man,” he said. “I didn’t save you from anything. Coming up here, it could have been the death of you.” Farquar’s voice had gotten louder and rougher by the word. “Why did you do this mad thing!” He looked ready to punch her.
“How could I not! ” she shot back. “You knew nothing about me. And he’s rich as Croesus, and still you . . .” Her eyes, liquidly bright, gazed into his. “And to thank you. And to meet you. And I love you.”
It just came out, and as it hung in the air between them, they knew that it was true.
Hie, she’d already bashed what he knew about women to smithereens.
“We’ve got to kill him first,” he said.
“Of course.” She took his arm and he didn’t flinch. “But what about Skulley? And the dog?”
“Don’t take mind o’ them gorse-heads. That cur won’t come within miles of Stephenson or Grayson. Their sheep could jump in his mouth and he wouldn’t gulp. They’re the shepherds up here, and that dog’s back has met their crooks. And Skulley, he thinks the forest is haunted.”
She made a sound like a turtledove. She was chuckling. “That wouldn’t have anything to do with you scaring the daylights out of a person, would it? That rearing horse!”
An eerie but comforting feeling came over him, of knowing her before, as if she’d been Curlew. Two loners, they’d formed an inseparable bond when they were thrown together in the Second Battle of Ypres, during one of those times in May 1915 when men lost their minds merely from the sound. Just before a push, they read poems to each other, then climbed out and tried not to drown in the holes or get shot while they did their duty. On one relatively good day, at a hellish place named in soldiers’ humour “the corner of Joy and Crucifix Streets,” where the ground squelched as much with rotting bodies as sucking mud, and bones poked up like stubble, Farquar was in the lead, pulling a horse he planned to shoe. Curlew was pushing from behind. Curlew slipped and fell, spearing himself through the eye on a split arm bone.
This girl was looking at him now, smiling somewhat indulgently. “Get a move on,” she said. “I never imagined you as a daydreamer.”
Skulley hadn’t lied. He knew these parts and before the quilt of morning fog had lifted, he, with his dog, led Galveny up through the fields of violet harebells, as gorgeous as any spring bluebell but so contrarian here in the kind of cold that chills the bones. Not that Skulley noted, and Galveny walked streaming muttered curses at the ankle-twisting outcrops of limestone and wet grasses, slippery as ice. Up they tramped, passing dead nettle, gorse, stepping on heather and other sharp-scented herbage, till they reached what looked to Galveny to be an impenetrable leafy wall.
“Down,” whispered Skulley. “Crawl through.”
Galveny was just going to say, “Are you mad?” when he saw the tunnel, little more than rabbit-size. “Crawl,” Skulley hissed behind him.
Galveny took his gun off his back and shimmied with it under him, he imagined, just like soldiers had. His jacket back tore and so did one sleeve. He would have liked to demand part of Skulley’s pay back when this adventure was over, but he didn’t plan for there to be a Skulley capable of listening then.
More than an hour later Galveny, standing in the stream, drank water from his hands, tried to stop them from shaking and failed, and reshouldered his scratched, muddy, new game-shooting rifle. He also held, concealed in his breast pocket, a beautiful palm gun handcrafted in Germany; and in his sock, a knife with a medieval hunting scene of hound and hart.
He was soaked to the bone from first the thick fog, then the drizzle, and increasingly, his own cold sweat. He’d been abandoned and couldn’t have turned back if he’d been paid a million quid. He had thought that Skulley would lead him within spitting distance of Farquar’s back, for Galveny’s armaments were obtained specifically for this event. In fact, his fighting skills were as good as his sense of direction. The man always thought himself quite the navigator, though he could get lost in a steam bath.
His face was a painter’s inspiration: the nose as wheezy as a bulldog’s, flat-profiled but puffed, textured and coloured at the sides like two bunches of lightly trodden grapes. The cheekbones were off-kilter, and the mouth—with its tattered lips and not enough bone to attach false teeth to—the mouth was a dribbling gape. His voice was no longer that of a thespian but a whisper-loud, hoarse lisp, so many letters unable to be formed in the wreck of a palate that his anger in how they came out only made him a thing unreal, like an abomination of a man. Indeed, he’d even frightened the servants in his exclusive little London club. His fellow connoisseurs all cut him off. He was alone. He only had his daughter; for his wife, after that beating, instantly fled to her mother’s house, where she divorced him. He looked, she said, like some thing in a War veteran’s Home. No one who should expose himself. It enraged her and every one of her friends that he didn’t think of their sensibilities.
And his face had only grown uglier and more determined while he hunted for this Farquar. Galveny travelled light, renting through agents, for a season or a few weeks. His possessions: three bags, one trunk, and his daughter. No collector would tell him anything, and only a great deal of money to an Edinburgh detective agency led to him being certain enough to move to the staging house that was luckily free and only ten minutes’ walk from his guide, the scoundrel poacher Skulley who’d demanded cash up front. Damn Scots. Can’t trust a one of them muckheads. But Galveny had paid up like a lamb. He had no choice.
He rubbed his sleeve against his forehead, only succeeding in scratching his eyelids with grit. Proper daylight would come soon enough, he told himself. Then the forest would be his hunting ground. Ah, you think you’re clever, you gorilla—you’re an animal living here, with your pretensions. Everything’s money. You’re no better. And little do you know a Galveny. We remember everything.
He splashed further along the creek, bloodying his knees, chin, elbows on the moss-slick stones, cursing and vowing as he went. His voice had kept him company ever since he’d realised: he’d been deserted by even the dog; and he hadn’t the faintest idea where he was, or his path back. Meanwhile, the forest he’d expected to get lighter got even darker—and that sky that wouldn’t stop pissing on him didn’t help. As he rushed forward, his gun hitting the back of his head at every fall, the scenery closed in around him ever more oppressively, reminding him cruelly of some play he’d had such fun at years ago, some murder mystery that gave him a frisson of fear that lifted when the lights went on.
His eyebrows dripped, blinding him. His ruined lips he could never properly close dripped tears, sweat, dirt, and snot into his mouth. He stumbled up the stream. There didn’t seem to be a way into this forest, this intolerably contrarian place that Farquar lived in—“Like a fucking dog!”
Cursing was the only thing keeping Galveny going when at last, in the crotch of the forest, in its deepest darkness, a shaft of light or sound or something alerted him to a way to escape from the stream itself. He grabbed at a tangle of jutting roots and pulled himself up the bank.
On land again, in this bit of clearing, he felt a new man. He was reaching behind to take his gun off his back when his arm stopped in midair, then dropped. He felt four years old again, some nothingness grabbing at his back like those nights when his father locked him out on the crumbling window ledge for being naughty.
He ran unseeing, forward into the forest, because suddenly—he had to run. Arms out, eyes screwed shut, he ran straight into the middle of a mob of walking sticks in their adolescence. A rearing horse, a woman brushing her hair, a unicorn, two snakes entwined, and a chipmunk.
Two vinelike ends of some disciplining wires caught him, one by an arm, and another by the back of his neck. Another, unaccountably, looped around his waist. And as he struggled, more wires confoundedly found their way around his torso, ankles, wrists. He wrenched left to free himself, and one very sharp wire slipped, ever so discreetly, into his left ear. Any movement he made only drove it further in.
“Farquar,” he screamed. “Farquar!”
Of course he sounded, with no teeth or much of a bottom lip, rather comical, like a ham actor playing a raven.
The screaming only managed to drive the wire deeper down his ear canal.
Then it punctured his eardrum with a burst of purest pain, shoving out the childish fears.
He saw blackness and a brief flash of light, like being in an alley when a kidnapper wags a lantern. His thoughts slipped back to other good times, sights and sounds. A girl crying had squeezed a tear out of his Sir One-Eye. He grew strength from that, and even felt his other senses gaining heightened sensitivity. For after all, his right ear was still sound, and his limbs, though bruised, were sound—and, he reminded himself, with patience comes reward.
A gusty wind must have settled over this mountain, making the trees thrashing all around take on the oddest character, creating the strangest phantasms of sound—a horse’s neigh, just behind his elbow. Assorted chitterings all around.
Indeed, the forest seemed to come alive with sounds, now that he noticed. There were too many to count, but his ear picked out one above all, and strained for it. Low and regular, rough and deep: a woodsman’s saw. No. A man’s voice—lifting, falling . . . lift, hold, down in a long stroke. Then again and again, in some drawn-out rhythm that threatened to never end, like the bugger was reciting old-fashioned poetry. Interminable. No distinct words, of course. What could make that? Wind shoving two branches back and forth against each other, back and forth . . . till suddenly the air stilled, as if for a moment’s silence.
And so close he would have bet his life on it—quiet but deep: “Would you like to hear another?” followed by a soft coo like some bird.
The man’s voice had to be Farquar, the primitive bastard! So this was his sense of humour. It had to be Farquar. Galveny was thinking fast. Stabbing Farquar in the back now was impossible, and gunning the man down would have needed that poacher to do the work. The only thing for it was to return the next night, alone. Not entering the forest, of course, but by skirting its edges, Galveny reckoned he could set fire to the blighted place, with Farquar trapped in it proper, like an ape in a cage.
Galveny opened his mouth to demand release when something tickled his right ear, and into it poured a warm, moist, low, musical, pitiless chuckle.
His mind, already crazed, shattered. The wire in his left ear drove in further.
Maybe he closed his eyes—he was beyond knowing.
He felt the fetid breath of the forest drip into his every pore.
He heard the swishing hiss of a cobra.
The yipping of a fox.
The love-gurgles of turtledoves.
Strains of a current craze-song for a fox-trot, words and music that bore into you.
A man’s conversational syllables, deep as stones dropped in a well.
A ripple of woman’s laughter.
But perhaps his last feast of sensations was of smell—that most restoring of all cups—a cup of tea with a kick in it. His nostrils dilated. Hot with a drop of something ineffable—sweet, rough, strong.
Bite and burrow, swell and rot. The flesh is weak, but the rods have never weakened. His skeleton is held bolt upright in that impenetrable tangle.
“The Walking-Stick Forest” copyright © 2014 by Anna Tambour
Art copyright © 2014 by Karla Ortiz