THE DREAM WOOD
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She came to him out of the wood, wild-haired, bare-foot, in ill-fitting clothes. The cats, two tortoiseshells and one pure white, waited for her on the flagstones in a perfect, unblinking line. She greeted each of them with a solemn touch, stopping to gaze into the round harvest moon-gold of the white cat’s eyes and when it blinked, she returned the gesture. Next, she came to stand in front of him and it was as if a piece of the wood itself stood there, taking him in with clear eyes of jasper and jade.

“You are the magician,” she said and her voice was surprisingly ordinary, “You called me here.”

“I am a storyteller.”

She shrugged. “There are many names.”

He considered this. People came to him for stories and he always knew: the right story, the right time, the right place. Sometimes he wrote them down and the person took the story away with them, a story for another time, or for many times. But he didn’t have a story for this wild girl on his doorstep. When he told her this, she nodded.

“I am not here for a story,” she said and then repeated, “You called me and I came.”

So he let her into his home. It had been a home of many uses, many names – a pig sty, a stable for horses, the home of a cranky old witch whose spirit still lingered in the shadowed corners. She liked the mead he kept among the cobwebs and dust in his kitchen and the storyteller could almost see her now, cackling in amusement as he let the wild wood into his home. The cats followed the girl in a line, the pure white cat twining between her legs, legs scratched as if by brambles and covered in dust and dirt.

She stopped in the doorway and the late afternoon sun illumined her wild curls. He waited. Was she uncertain? Afraid? Making some unknown decision? Did she worry that once inside she would be trapped, domesticated, never allowed to return to the woods?

So he waited.

When she did finally step through, whatever internal struggle she’d fought was not visible in her eyes. In fact, she looked about her with avid curiosity. Overburdened bookshelves dominated the room, precarious with books. Objects spilled from cupboards and filled every available surface – puppets, glittering witch bottles, carvings, little cork witch dolls, musical instruments. She made no sound as she padded around the room, cats at her heels, here gently stroking the spine of a book with a title in gold filigree, there picking up a witch bottle and gazing at it, as if she could see into its clinking contents. She stopped before a wall of paintings and remained there in silence for a good, long time.

“They are dreams,” the magician said.

She nodded and touched a slender finger to the dusty frame of a painting all in greys and greens. A dream of the wood as it had once been, with its slanting sunbeams that did nothing to illuminate the half-hidden faces amongst the trees. For a moment, it seemed that they moved, the little darting creatures, and the room filled with the fragrance of wild flowers and damp earth. Then she drew her hand back and it was gone.

At night she slept, curled like a cat, by the dying fire. The cats curled with her, the white cat and the two tortoiseshells. She ate nothing but bits of chocolate the magician kept around his home. When people came for stories, she vanished, although sometimes the magician caught a glimpse of her peering down from the attic or peeking through the open door. She refused to go into town with him, but when he traversed the countryside, she was there too, walking at his side with steps so silent he sometimes wondered if she was a dream too, or a story.

And all the time he told stories. He told stories of monstrous girls – wolf girls, and wild girls, girls with luring voices and drowning arms. He told her the stories that the tortoiseshells cats had brought him, for they had been witches in a former life and their memories ran deep. The girl from the wood did not have a luring voice. Her laugh was raucous, free and unconstrained. When he told stories of witches, she would curl up beside him and listen, almost without blinking, the white cat purring beside her and the two tortoiseshells on either side. He could tell she was filing each story away like a charm, but he didn’t know why. If he asked her why she was here, she only repeated what she’d said the day she arrived.

“You called me and I came.”

Summer drifted into autumn with riotous winds, flame-red trees, and intermittent showers of rain. Autumn smelled like the rain-drenched fields, like smoke, like wildness and magic and the wild girl drank it in by the window watching the southern passage of the birds and the droplets of rain running down the glass. People came more and more to the magician as October drew to a close and the talismans he gave people were the memories of their pasts, the stories that were the roots of their ancestors.

And on Halloween he gave the wild girl the stories of the roots of his ancestors. The ghost of the old witch sat in the corner and listened, too.

It was a lethargic winter. Colder than anyone remembered – although the magician could tell stories of colder winters, winters that could freeze people in their tracks. One day the wild girl went for a walk with only her oversized ratty jumper to keep her warm. She returned with a perfect scarlet rose. The rose bloomed the rest of the winter, a spot of perfect colour to hold the winter’s gloom at bay.

Spring came and summer, again. The wild girl stood in the open doorway to revel in the rain showers racing inland from the sea. Beads of water clung to her curls, her eyelashes, her oversized jumpers. She dripped all over the stone floor. When the sun shone, she caught the whirling thistledown with its filaments of silver thread and blew them again out of her long thin hands. And the magician told stories, peeling back the layers of the lanes through which they walked, the old stone houses that time and wildness had reclaimed, the stones and the old trees.

In the evening, they stood on the hill behind the magician’s house and watched as the sun sank into the sea and transfigured it into alchemist’s gold. The magician told the wild girl what other worlds the sun traversed through before it returned to them.

Another year passed and another. The town began to encroach on the magician’s home. The wild girl seemed to grow restless, pacing farther and farther afield on her own. The magician found her standing before the painting of the dream wood more frequently with a strange, troubled look in her jasper and jade eyes. And he grew worried. He told her his wildest stories, sinking into the depths of the sea, or winding into the secret heart of the forest, and wandering with the wild wind across the moors. Only then did a stillness sink into her. His voice, silken and clear as the hidden brook in the forest, kept her bound.

But the magician could not always stay at home. He must still travel and dispense his stories. They were needed. Stories had power. So he left, for a week maybe two, with the wild girl to mind the house and the cats.

One day, he was telling a story of a witch who trained magpies to steal for her, a story the wild girl would have curled against him to listen to, and he stopped. Fifty people stared back at him, eager for the story and disappointed at finding the real world around them. He had stopped with the certain knowledge that something was changed.

The magician packed up his rucksack, filled with the magic of his trade and turned aside from traveling and storytelling. He returned to the house to find it silent. The two tortoiseshell cats greeted him one on either side of the door like sentinels, but the white cat was nowhere to be found.

Neither was the wild girl.

The magician looked for her in the silent house, in the lanes surrounding it, and turning at last to the woods from which she’d come, he found another disappearance. In his absence, a developer had come and levelled the trees.

The magician returned home and dusted the cobwebs off his old bottle of mead. Pouring a glass for himself and a glass for the old witch’s ghost, he took his pen and he sketched the wild girl, filling page after page of his sketchbook with her wildness, her gleaming smile, her jasper and jade eyes. Wild girls must always leave or be tamed. He knew this from stories. And stories had power.

The white cat never returned home. Neither did the wild girl.

But sometimes the magician found a bar of chocolate on his doorstep, or a glimmering piece of quartz, or a bouquet of wild flowers that lasted longer than any flowers should. He put these offerings with the witch bottles and the little cork dolls, with the instruments and the books. And there were nights when the scent of the woods, the deep peaty earth with bluebells and honeysuckle and wild rose, filled his dreams, lingering on the edge of consciousness as he awoke.

One day, he noticed a shape in the painting of the wild wood dream. It was just a suggestion of wild curls illumined by the sun and at its heels the ghostly wisp of a white cat.

Image created by Peter Stevenson for this story.