I was thoroughly exhausted after my odyssey through Hopeless’s tidal plain, but determined to get as far away from it as possible, by following something resembling a path which winded into a gloomy forest.
The trees were all the same, they had smooth bark, purplishly moist, and a few scant leaves clinging to their skeletal branches and twigs. The leaves seemed to pulsate, but looked wilted nonetheless. They were the colour of rotting liver. Coincidentally, that was the fragrance released by the awful trees as well. Long urine-yellow lichen clung to a lot of the branches, either swaying in a breeze I couldn’t feel, or else wavering slowly of their own accord, so I stayed clear of them, having no desire to lose my cap, or even my head, to their clutching fronds.
Despite the apparent deadness of the place, the wood was teeming with wildlife, in all shapes and sizes.
For this, at least, and in contrast to the hostile vegetation, I had come mentally prepared. When Gammer had heard of my assignment to Maine, she had taken me to visit a friend in the Sussex Weald before I left. The friend had been an alluring red-headed woman who lived in a solitary cottage deep within the woods. The cottage was named The Owlery. Gammer had told me the woman was the Wise Woman of the Wyrde Woods, and I had witnessed a Pook Dance on a moonbathed clearing around a stone circle.
I had grown up with the notion of Pooks, of course. It is nigh impossible not to be aware of their existence in Sussex. As many children do, despite all remonstrations to stay well away from Pooks, I had attempted at times to catch sight of them in and around the coastal village I grew up in. I might have even caught a few glimpses, but that was always hard to determine.
Not in the Wyrde Woods though, where Pooks swanned about openly on certain nights, leaving me wide-eyed, bewildered, and beguiled.
None of the creatures here, in this gloomy Hopeless forest, resembled any of the Pooks I had seen, other than that there was one notable commonality; namely that the diversity was so overwhelming it was near impossible to focus on one species long enough to apply individual descriptions. All the more so because not only was my body fully fatigued, but my mind was all a-whirl, and somehow Hopeless seemed to be absorbing my vitality, sapping at my very soul.
Instead of focusing on the individual, I accepted the collective. Like I had been during my brief sojourn in the Wyrde Woods, I was much minded of Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market.
Flying, running, leaping,
Puffing and blowing,
Chuckling, clapping, crowing,
Clucking and gobbling,
Mopping and moping,
Full of airs and graces,
Pulling wry faces,
Cat-like and rat-like,
Ratel- and wombat-like,
Snail-paced in a hurry,
Parrot-voiced and whistler,
Helter skelter, hurry skurry.
My tired brain resolved to call the creatures ‘skurries’.
Although some of the skurries displayed some curiosity towards my appearance, none appeared aggressive. Most paid me no heed whatsoever, for which I was grateful, still reeling from my fight with a bloody plant of all things.
Through the vagaries of my thoughts, I heard my Gaffer’s voice speaking of essential basics. I recognised that as a sign that I was in urgent need of rest and respite, before my mind became so befuddled that it would direct my body to stroll into the huge, gaping, and tooth-lined maws of whatever land-predators roamed these parts.
It was then that I saw a tree unlike all of the others, with dry, soft bark, sheltered beneath a rich spring-green canopy, its great roots sinking beneath a mass of soft moss. No skurries crawled, hopped, levitated, flew, or otherwise lingered here, and the branches were mercifully free of the disquieting lichen.
Having lost my suitcase, I didn’t dare to disinvest myself from my satchel and knapsack, or even cap for that matter, but just lay down on a bed of soft moss embraced by two of the tree’s mighty roots. Part of my mind resisted, calling for caution, but I was simply too tired, and the moss felt finer than a soft goose-down mattress, cajoling me into a deep sleep.