All That Remains Is You
by Steven Savile
The fork in the road offered two choices, the avenue of the righteous and the sinister path.
Indicating left, Hoke Berglund took the sinister path.
The streetlights bathed the road with sickly yellow light that made the pedestrians look more like shuffling plague victims than the young upwardly mobile types they in all probability were. Briefcases and umbrellas and folded financial papers clutched to their sides, the creases of their designer suits falling just so, their eyes staring straight ahead, seeing no one as they marched to the beat of the city's concrete heart. He amended his simile—his fellow citizens were not victims of some unknown plague. They were zombies. He was surrounded on all sides by the shambling undead answering the call of the great god Money.
Hoke had always enjoyed the fact that the word sinister, a word almost everyone took to mean the presence something wicked, had such unexpectedly mundane origins. Things related to the left were unlucky or inherently evil while the right was, well, simply right. He checked his watch. It was almost nine. His appointment wasn't until ten-thirty and although the publishing house lay on the sinister path the events the day promised were far from unlucky.
A battered leather document wallet lay on the passenger seat. It contained the manuscript for what he hoped would be his second book, The Forgetting Wood. Ten years of work in one story. While on one hand it felt like a lifetime, on the other it could have been the blink of an eye. The right hand and the left. The only truth was that it wasn't the kind of productivity that made you an overnight success. A man went through a lot of changes in ten years, from the caterpillar of the boy he was into the moth of a man he had become. The story charted it all in one way or another. The birth of his daughter Kirsten, the loss of his wife Isabella a few hours later, before even the chance for joy, and the subsequent the loss of self that had seen him institutionalised for twenty three months, his baby girl suddenly motherless and fatherless. Hoke had put a lot of himself into the new story. It was no mere fairy tale.
Hoke parked the car across the street from the publisher's building. The huge plate glass windows of the foyer still had posters of Princess Scapegoat on display, with the many and varied covers that had dressed it up to look more and more fantastic, nine years after its release. His debut was maturing like a fine wine, enchanting a whole new generation of children. It was a beloved book. Mothers still came up to him in the supermarket checkout queue to say how much their daughters and sons loved his story, though more and more it was the children, now grown into young adults who wanted to shake his hand and thank him for the gift of magic he had bestowed upon them, and they all asked about that second book.
He didn't want to get out of the car. Getting out of the car meant going into the building. Going into the building meant walking into the meeting with Cornelia Isenstein. Walking into the meeting with Cornelia Isenstein meant delivering the manuscript. Delivering the manuscript meant, inevitably, bearing his soul up for dissection, having his life judged unworthy and hearing the words: "Well . . . it isn't Princess Scapegoat, is it, Hoke?"
So instead he sat in the car and watched the flotsam and jetsam of life wash by on all sides. For a moment he let himself imagine that he could hear what they were thinking, the secret dark desires, the petty betrayals and pettier triumphs that marked their everyday, and knew his imagination was incapable of plumping the depths of humanity and its suffering, even this small fragment framed in the car windows. He might imagine hells but the shuffling zombies lived in them.
"I need a cigarette," he said to himself. Smoking gave him something to do with his hands but instead of the calming effect he had hoped for, the sight of his trembling hand holding the slowly burning cigarette only made him more anxious. He stubbed the cigarette out in the ashtray, reached over for the document wallet and opened the door. The air didn't smell like air, it smelled like exhaust fumes.
He had an odd feeling of déjà vu as he crossed the street and saw an old man looking at the covers of Princess Scapegoat in the window. The old man turned and smiled as Hoke got closer—it was a good smile, a kind smile, so when the old man held out his hand to be shaken. Hoke took it and smiled back. "I love this book," the old man said. "Changed my life."
"Mine too," Hoke agreed. He wasn't sure though if he loved the book or loathed it. It was difficult to come to terms with the changes it had enforced upon his life. Writers usually wear a cloak of invisibility when it comes to popular culture recognition, the kind of thing that haunts movie stars and musicians. There are not so many writers who find themselves on the list of false idols worshipped by the masses but for a while there Hoke Berglund had been one of them, doing the rounds of breakfast television, serious late night review and cultural shows, chat shows and for a while soaking up the fifteen minutes of fame Princess Scapegoat had offered. Some were calling him the next Dr. Seuss and he wasn't arguing. Others compared him with the darker moments of Roald Dahl's viciously warped genius and he took it as a compliment. To some he was Kipling, to others he promised to be Lewis Carroll returned. With the cult of celebrity that rapidly built up around him Hoke found the pressure to deliver increasingly difficult to bear and in the end not delivering that second manuscript became easier than offering himself up to be deemed a failure, a one book wonder, and eventually he stopped even pretending to write it. When asked he would just shrug and say: "One day. I'm working on it."
The old man looked at the battered document wallet Hoke was clutching.
"A new book?" he asked.
"A new story, whether it becomes a book or not, well that all depends on the people in there."
"They will love it, trust me." The old man said. "Just as they will adore your final book, Angel Road, when you deliver it in fifteen years time. You have the touch. Your stories shine. Of course it would be better if they didn't. If you didn't walk into that building but instead took your story home and burned it so that it never saw the light of day and you, well you faded away. Another one book wonder. But of course you won't do that. I know you won't. Your ego won't allow you to. After all, you wrote these words so they must be worth reading, isn't that right? Ten years of your life poured out onto two-hundred and sixteen pages of Hammermill's recycled bond paper, typed with hand marked corrections. The Forgetting Wood. A much better title than Wolfskin Forest. You were right to change it."
Hoke looked at the old man. "How could you know? How?" He backed off, shaking his head. "It's impossible . . . "
"You don't believe that. Remember, you told Grillo last night, nothing is impossible; Improbable, certainly, but not impossible. You were quite pompous about it really, if memory serves—full of the righteousness of ignorance. But that is you isn't it, Hoke? Banging the drum of clever word play and fancy ideas of Kierkegaard and Heidegger, Durkhiem and Diderot and who's that other one? Wittgenstein? That was the fellow, wasn't it? Yes, I seem to remember being captivated by all those windbags and blowhards at one time or other. I was hardly the world's most original thinker. Ah, poor old Grillo's eyes had quite glazed over but that didn't matter did it, that's the joy of a captive audience, you can keep rattling on about science being about proving what something is not, not what something is, and it really doesn't matter what tosh you spout. So, let's settle for improbable, shall we? It's improbable that I should know what is in that document wallet, what bond of paper it's typed on, how many pages it runs to, and the fact that it already has more than fifty hand written corrections and marginalised notes. Not impossible, because, well, as you see, I know exactly what is in that wallet of yours. So, given then that I know, one must ask: how do I know? Which is an interesting question, wouldn't you agree?"
"Who . . . are you?" Hoke said, but a suspicion had begun to seed in the back of his brain. On some unconscious level he already recognised the man and the core similarities they shared.
"There was a boy, and there was a wolf, that is how it begins." The old man said, quoting verbatim, the opening line of the manuscript tucked away safely inside the wallet. "I'll let you in on a secret: that is how it always begins in stories like this. The wolf is hungry. The boy is there. It is a feast of opportunity. What else is a wolf supposed to do? The wolf has sharp teeth, made for grinding bones and chewing meat. The boy has meat and bones aplenty. I ask again, what is the wolf supposed to do? Eat broccoli and cauliflower and pretend that it doesn't like tasty boy-flesh? Oh no, I don't think so. It is in its nature to eat the boy. That is why we have fairy tales, so wolves can eat boys . . . and girls."
"How? How could you possibly know those words? No one has seen the manuscript. No one. I haven't let a soul near it. How could you know those words?"
The old man held out his hands with their liver spots and their loose-fitting skin, turned them palm up, examining the life written into them by time and painful experience. "I wrote them," he said simply, as though that explained everything. "You don't believe me . . . I know you don't believe me. How could you? I wouldn't believe me. But . . . am I a wolf or am I a boy?"
"No," Hoke said, stepping away from the man. "No," he repeated, as though repetition would somehow drive the old man. "Are you . . . are you . . . my ghost? Am I dead?"
"Dead? No. Would you be better off dead? Which is a very different question: oh yes, most certainly. If I knew then what I know now, and all that . . . Don't go in there," the old man said. "Please, get back in the car and drive home and destroy the manuscript. Forget about being a writer, be a father to that little girl at home. Don't let the wolves out."
Hoke stumbled back another step. He felt his back press up against the glass of the revolving doors of the publisher's building. He was surrounded on all sides by cardboard cut-outs and posters of his story, different covers, different languages, all very different images of his own defeat crowding in around him. He pushed back through the door, desperate to be away from the old man.
"Think about Kirsten . . . what it will do to her . . . I'm beginning you."
Then the revolving doors swallowed him and carried him away from one nightmare world into another; the world of the suits and corporations and runs, projections and returns, where finance conquered art and in the process proved Wilde's diatribe that all art was inherently worthless by churning out semi-literate blockbusters that pandered to the most dumbed-down of the consumer units that used to be called readers, while leaving laureate masterpieces to languish somewhere below the mid-list, unloved by all but the fool who gave his life to create it.
The security drones did not look pleased to see him – but then he assumed he looked like a ravaged loon in their hostile eyes, lacking the necessary fear factor to be considered a hostile. No, they had him pegged. Just another one of the million hopefuls clutching publication dreams close to his chest. He barely registered a blip on their radar.
"Can I help you sir?" the drone asked.
"I have an appointment with Cornelia Isenstein."
"Can I have you name please, sir?"
"Very good Mr. Berglund, if you'd care to wait in the reception area," the drone inclined his head, using it to point to the left. "I'll tell Ms. Isenstein you are here."
Hoke shuffled off. He wasn't listening. His head was full of other things. He clutched the leather document wallet tightly. A few minutes later Cornelia Isenstein came sweeping around the marbled corner, power dressed in a figure hugging black number. She thrust out a bone-white hand toward Hoke. He took it. It felt like a dead fish, cold and slimy.
"Hoke, darling," the way she said it, she might easily have been invoking the ghost of Salvatore; her teeth cut off the last couple of letters in their hurry to rid her mouth of the word. "You look . . . actually you look terrible."
"Brutally honest as ever, I see."
"No matter, it adds to the appeal, the rumpled genius and all of that. Is that," she indicated the battered leather document wallet. "it? Let's see it shall we?" Cornelia almost snatched the thing out of his hands. "A few of us have got a lot riding on this, Hoke, I don't mind telling you. It's one thing to be one of the country's most beloved storytellers of the dead and buried variety, but quite another to still be alive and kicking and simply not producing. Do you realise we still get over twenty seven thousand letters a year relating to Princess Scapegoat. That's over two hundred and fifty thousand letters since the book was first published Hoke. Can you imagine that? You're an institution."
"That's . . . umm . . . nice," he said, not sure what else he was supposed to say to the revelation that he was ranked right up there with marriage, the Royal family and taxes.
"The book is into its forty-seventh printing. I've never been involved with anything like it. Until this," she waved the leather document wallet proprietarily. "Ten years in the making. Ten years. The anticipation this one's built up far outweighs anything you can imagine. Konstantin has already set the PR wagon in motion. Word has been strategically leaked to distributors, news wires, bookstores, libraries, trade magazines and, get this, schools, that a new Hoke Berglund book is on the way. The phones have been ringing off the hook. We've got every Tom, Dick and Sally talking the book up to television reps, film companies, there's a frenzy of hype that money just can't buy. I've lost count of how many bidding wars we've got going on right now, action figure rights, lunch boxes, stationary, wall paper, you name it, people are throwing money at us for the right to make it. We haven't even started talking to the multimedia boys – and that's where the real money is: computer games. Everyone wants a piece of the literary event of the decade. And, best of all, my curmudgeonly writer friend, advance orders from book stores have been phenomenal. Hell, yesterday we got a message from the P.M.´s secretary asking if you'd be prepared to front the new adult literacy drive they've got in the works. It's all money, money, money."
"How? I mean . . . I only finished it last week . . . I hadn't even decided if it was good enough . . . I still haven't . . . how can everyone know already?"
"Technology, Hoke. The minute I hung up on you, I had the art department mock up a cover based purely on the title you'd given me, and then the PR department cobbled together a press release laced with all of their favourite superlatives, shot them out to all the right places, and Bernadette's your Auntie. It's called franchising. Wonderful isn't it? The book doesn't have to sell a single copy and it will still be the most lucrative thing you've ever written. Now, say thank you, Cornelia."
"But . . . I don't want this . . . I mean . . . toys and dolls and pencil cases and . . . shit. It isn't what the book is about. I just want the children to read."
"And they will, Hoke, in their millions. The gimmicks just keep them loyal and give them something to get excited about. You know kids, attention span of mayflies."
He thought about the old man and his plea that he turn around, go home and burn the manuscript, and already even before he'd stepped fully into the belly of the behemoth that had once been about publishing books, he understood the kind of monster his book was spawning. It was the kind of thing that drove a wedge between kids in the playground, the haves and the have mores ganging up on the have absolutely nothings of the world and ramming little plastic action figures up their noses. It wasn't what he wanted.
"Shall we?" Cornelia Isenstein said, and he knew it was too late to turn back.
She led him upstairs. Things had changed a lot in the ten years since he'd trodden the hallowed halls of his chosen industry. The first thing that struck him was just how ugly money was; money may provide things but they were only objects and as such lacked any inherent aesthetic. The smell of beeswax and well worn leather smacked of some desperate need to return to the Golden Age of publishing. The bookcases in the conference room were ornate carved leafy things, grotesque in the way they dwarfed the things they cherished in their dark wooden hearts, the books that were the entire reason for their existence. It was all overdone. Too much. Hoke imagined the directors pouring over issues of Town & Country and Vanity Fair in search of that old time chic they craved, then buying all of it and cramming it into a single room in the hope that it would add some gravitas to the surroundings.
"It looks like an episode of the Antiques Roadshow in here," he said, by way of greeting to the seven suits waiting for him. No one laughed.
"Good to finally meet you, Mr. Berglund," one of the suits said, offering a hand that had been slicking back a designer mop of hair only a moment before.
"I'm sure it is," Hoke said, inhaling loudly. He let the breath leak out of him. "So, Cornelia tells me you have plans? I thought I would be coming here begging you to publish the book." They did laugh at that. "But it seems the quality of the writing doesn't matter anymore in this world of action figures and packed lunch boxes. I can't say that I approve, actually. It seems vaguely . . . disgusting."
The suits didn't seem overly worried about his objections. They sat him down and went through the projections and proposals, and then, after almost an hour of mumbo-jumbo dressed up as jargon, the issue of the actual manuscript came up. Cornelia had been quietly skim-reading the two hundred and sixteen pages of The Forgetting Wood. She looked up, flustered. "This . . . this . . . is . . . "
"What?" Hamel, one of the number-crunchers asked, elbows planted on the leatherette blotter before him.
"Some things," Cornelia Isenstein said, struggling to find the words she wanted. "Some things shouldn't be put in books . . . "
"What do you mean?" Mikluski, the money man, asked.
Hoke waited. He knew full well what she meant. It wasn't a comfortable book. It wasn't a happily ever after fairy tale he was telling.
"It's . . . vile . . . " she said.
And she did, in detail, about the wolf, who was King of a Forest where the weary traveller was not permitted to remember of the world they left behind outside its dead leaves, and yes, the leaves were dead, and the trees were rotten to the core and riddled with mildew and mould, and of how the monsters, loyal to the King the forest had found a way to change their shapes – and these were some of the nastiest malformed by-blows imaginable – into something approaching human, and snuck out into the real world where they made the grown-ups forget, one by one, about their children, children that were taken in to the forest to feed the King.
"Sounds positively Grimm." Another one of the suits offered, looking to break the mood. "No happy ending?"
Cornelia turned to the last few pages, skimmed a few lines and shook her head.
"Well, this is a pretty little pickle we've gotten ourselves into isn't it?" Hamel said. He seemed vaguely amused by the notion of the single biggest literary event of the year being a thinly veiled allegory of sexual predators and child abuse. "Still, if the lunacies of Alice in Wonderland can garner both critical acclaim and longevity, and the sexual depravities of Felix Salten's The Memoirs of Josephine Mutzenbacher can be ignored whilst every doe-eyed kid in Christendom cries at the death of Bambi's mother, well, there's hope yet, I'd hazard."
"Are you suggesting we publish this . . . this . . . there are things children shouldn't have to know . . . Whatever happened to the innocence of childhood?"
"Not only that we publish it, my dear, but that we make it the most feted children's novel of the century. It is, undoubtedly, a work of genius. Now, I'm thinking promotional packages for schools, study questions for literary groups, you know the kind of stuff, probing the issues, stuff for teachers to use to open up some pretty powerful discussions. The Forgetting Wood could be an amazing tool, people. We don't have to like it. That isn't our job. We are sitting on a nest, here, and Mr. Berglund over there has just shit a golden egg into our lap, so to speak."
And so the meeting went, Hoke gave up trying to pay attention. He signed what they wanted him to sign and walked out feeling uncomfortably like Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. He hesitated at the revolving glass doors, half expecting to see the old man laying in wait to trap him as he emerged. The street was crowded with the lunchtime zombie brigade hungry for their pre-packed sandwiches and double-shot decaff non-fat lattes (with a cinnamon twist) that seemed to driven the good old fashioned cup of coffee into extinction right there next to the Dodo. Swimming against the stream, he made it back to the car and climbed inside.
He knew, without looking over his shoulder, that he wasn't alone. He looked in the rear-view mirror, expecting to see the old man's eyes staring right back. Instead, he saw part of the old man's shoulder, right arm and chest where he had sprawled out and fallen asleep on the backseat. Hoke shifted his angle slightly so he could see part of the face where it was pressed into the upholstery. He knew who he was looking at, but he wasn't prepared to accept it.
"Impossible," he breathed.
"Improbable," the old man said, opening an eye and tilting slightly so he could see Hoke in the front of the car. "Obviously not impossible – after all impossible means it cannot possibly happen, but, well, it's happened. They loved the book, right? They are going to take it away from you and turn it into something it isn't. They don't care if it is a real place like Christopher Robin's Hundred Acre Wood, heck if they knew they'd been signing deals to make it into a theme park, replete with King Wolf and all of his nasty little critters. So, we say nothing, agreed? Think of Kirsten."
"It's you . . . isn't it? I mean . . . me?" Hoke said.
"Disappointing, isn't it? Seeing the man you become when you grow old disgracefully. If it is any consolation, we enjoyed earning every wrinkle and every crease. You know what they say, you get the face you deserve when you hit your sixties, well, mark my words Hoke, by the time you really start clocking up the mileage and breach your seventh decade every smile, every laugh, every wince and frown have crawled out from under the skin to make sure the whole world gets to see them one last time. It's the big farewell performance. Let me guess what's going through your head . . . first, you're looking at me and thinking: the hair thinned, but it didn't go, not completely. It's the old vanity. Second though, a little deeper, you're curious, you want to ask me what I know, it's like lightning getting the chance to strike the same place twice, you want a list of things to avoid, dates when you need to be extra careful, dates when it'll really pay to take a few risks. You want to know what I regret most, what has given me the most joy. You want to be clued in to the whole shebang, am I right? Of course I'm right. I know you better than I know myself."
Hoke didn't say anything. There wasn't an awful lot he could say, the old man, the older version of him, was absolutely right. He was curious. He did want to know. Who wouldn't?
"Thing is, Hoke, when you find a secret, what do you do?" His older self asked seriously.
"Keep it," Hoke said, without thinking about it.
"Exactly. You keep it. Stands to reason, doesn't it. You find a secret, you keep it.
"So you aren't going to tell me."
"I'm not going to tell you, that's how it works. You find a secret, you keep it, or in this case someone shares a secret with you, you don't go sharing it with all and sundry. If it helps, think of it this way, one day you will know it." The old man sat up fully. "Come on, Hokester, let's drive. This place depresses me."
The traffic was backed up. Pedestrians and suicidal couriers on their bikes were the only things moving in the city, weaving in and out of the long line of cars. In was a long, slow road back to the converted warehouse he called home. They had a lot to talk about but said nothing. For a while Hoke drove with the window down but the noise and the air, filthy with emissions, forced him to roll it back up before they were clear of the city limits. His home had been an old bonded tea warehouse a century ago, but the laws had changed and the triple foamy half-caff chai's had replaced the old blends, leaving the place empty. He had bought it for a pittance the year Kirsten was born, because of the view. From the top windows you could see right across the rooftops of the city. At night it was a magical view.
The freight elevator was an old steel wire cage. Rolling the door closed He turned to Hoke senior, and asked the one question that refused to go away. He didn't expect an answer, but Isabella had always said he was a terrible liar. She, on the other hand, was gifted when it came to being economic with the truth. White lies, she called them, because she promised they were the kind of smudges that didn't hurt anyone. He had always known that couldn't be true, that secrets and lies had a habit of coming back to haunt and hurt. White lies like:
"My daughter," he said. "Kirsten . . . is she?"
"Yours? Yes . . . in the way that matters, but no, not yours in the way you think."
Hoke stopped. The elevator cage rattled in the shaft, grinding to a halt in the gods of the old warehouse. He didn't open the cage door. He couldn't move. Moving meant breaking the spell that silence and stillness had woven. Moving meant admitting that the world hadn't frozen in that last heartbeat of time before Isabella's lie came home. Moving meant Kerstin, his darling girl, wasn't his at all. He wasn't her father, she wasn't his flesh renewed. He couldn't move.
"Isabella lied," he said, softly. Part of him had always known. It was the root of all of her supposed white lies.
"Yes," the old man agreed, putting a hand on Hoke's shoulder. "But, only because she didn't think you'd understand –"
"You're damn right I wouldn't!" Hoke spat vehemently, and suddenly he was moving violently, struggling to shake the old man's hand off. "How . . . how could she do this? How could she . . . lie . . . about something like . . . this?"
"We all lie, Hoke. In this case, she felt she had no choice."
He sank to his knees. It felt as though the few certainties of his already frayed life were coming undone. There was Kerstin and there was Isabella and there was a happiness shaped space inside him where the two of them had lived. He very much wanted burning in that space to melt his flesh and bone so that he might seep away through the cracks in the elevator floor, down the shaft and into the dirt.
"She was my . . . daughter . . . "
"She still is."
"No, it's different. That's what you are telling me. She isn't my flesh and blood. She's someone else's little girl." He sounded pitiful.
"Get up, Hoke. Stand up, come on. This isn't news. I am going to ask you a question, think about it, and answer it. Okay?" Hoke nodded. His face was red and blotched with tears. "The Forgetting Wood, I want you to tell me where the story came from. I know, it's one of those questions you are supposed to hate, where do you get your ideas from? but think Hoke. Tell me exactly, where did the story of King Wolf and the by-blows of the forest come from?"
Hoke struggled to his feet. He opened the cage door. For once the disused warehouse felt exactly like that, a disused warehouse. While the walls held the ghosts of his past in their bricks that wasn't the worst of it; the worst was the little girl he knew would be coming home from the nursery soon. The girl he loved with his heart and soul. The girl that until a few moments ago he had thought of as his own. Gathering himself, he stepped out of the elevator. The old man followed him.
"You still don't get it do you?" The old man said, as they walked into the vast room that acted as lounge and studio. "Whose story was it?" Canvases were stacked against the walls, some painted on, some blank. The majority of the canvases were covered by faces twisted in pain, frenzied slashes of colour, but the same beautiful, childish face reoccurred time and again, like an angel amid the fall out of his anger.
Hoke didn't know what to do with himself. He didn't know whose story it was, it was just there, like most of his ideas, it just sort of came together.
"When was the first time you heard about King Wolf?" The old man pressed.
"I don't know. I don't remember."
"Yes you do. Yes you do. Think."
"Isabella," he said at last, though it sounded more like a question than an answer.
The old man nodded. "Mind if I?" he gestured toward the couch and shuffled over to sink into it with a sigh. "I'd kill for a cigarette . . . do you have a cigarette? I haven't smoked in years, but there are times . . . when it is just . . . right, you know?" Hoke handed the old man a packet of cigarettes and his lighter. "
"Keep them," he said. There was a single photograph on the desk by the old boxy Royal typewriter and the ream of Hammermil. "Will it get any easier? The pain, I mean?" Hoke asked, seeing the direction of the old man's gaze.
"I won't lie to you; there isn't a day, even now, when I don't wake up in the morning and miss her, or roll over in the middle of the night and reach out for her. I miss her, even though I have finally come to understand what she was, why she chose me. It doesn't get any easier, not that way. Does that mean it was love? I think perhaps it does. She was the only woman I could ever imagine growing old with. That's love, I think . . . when you are no longer obsessed with the fleeting beauty of youth . . . The story was her way of telling you, you were just too dense to understand. I know you remember the story, if I remember it, you have to, it's only a few years since you heard it, it is nigh on thirty-five since I did."
For the next hour, together, they remembered the woman they had both loved. It was strange and wonderful sharing intimacies with a complete stranger who knew and loved exactly as he knew and loved. It couldn't remain that way though, skirting around the issue of Isabella's infidelity. Hoke smoked thirteen cigarettes between his two incarnations.
"She cheated on us, though," he said, stubbing out the unlucky cigarette. The butt joined the oasis of burnt offerings in the ashtray.
The old man laughed. It wasn't a bitter sound. On the contrary, he seemed delighted by Hoke's terminal melancholy. "You really are dense aren't you, Hoke? She didn't cheat on you, or me, she was different. She wasn't one of us. She found you, and she loved you, but she wasn't one of us. She was a creature of the forest, a by-blow. Remember her story, how the creatures of the Forgetting Wood took human form and slipped out into the city to spread the forgetting? She was one of them, and she was carrying King Wolf's child . . . "
"Kirsten." The old man agreed. "And now, he wants her back. The by-blows are abroad, in sickeningly realistic human guises, they have been for years, but until now they didn't know where to look. Children go missing every day, Hoke, have you never wondered why? We could stand beside one of the by-blows of the Forgetting Wood and never know we were inches away from a monster, and even if we suspected, as soon as they moved on we would bury our suspicions, forget. It is the way they work, Hoke." The old man wheezed emphysematically as he struggled to stand. His entire frame shook beneath a palsy of age and atrophy.
"She isn't coming home from school, is she?"
"How do I get her back?"
The old man smiled wistfully. "What would you do in a fairy tale? You'd go into the wood with an axe, kill the wolf and bring the girl home. Sometimes real life is that simple, too. The one they call King Wolf rules the by-blows, his hate-fuelled obsession with Isabella and her child, their child, threatens each and every child in the city. The king is a monster. The king must die."
"This is why you came back, today, isn't it?"
"In part. I came back to beg you not to publish that damned book, because, once King Wolf learns that the secrets of the Forgetting Wood are out there, in the public domain, he won't rest until he has silenced you and made every single child and parent forget they ever heard of his magical home. And, in part I came back for Kirsten this time . . . I let her down once, because I simply didn't know what had happened. Now I know, and I am damned if I will fail her twice. Go and save my little girl, Hoke. She is all this old man has left."
"Where has he taken her?"
"To the heart of the wood itself."
"How do I find her . . . I mean . . . the wood? Where is it?"
"Everywhere and nowhere, everywhen and nowhen. It is in here," the old man tapped his chest with a fingertip. "And here," he tapped his temple. "It is unlike any other forest. All of the trees stem from a single sapling, the one tree, the tree, if you believe your stories, where Eve was tempted and Adam seduced. The tree was once the heart of the garden, now it is the heart of the wood as time and neglect have swallowed what once was paradise. Of course, stories are far from the truth, but there is always a grain of it in them."
"Eden? I am supposed to walk out of here into Eden? It's impossible . . . there is no Eden . . . there never was . . . " Hoke appeared to collapse in on himself as he spoke.
"Not impossible, we've already had this argument, Hoke. Improbable. Not impossible. The clues are hidden in your books. You already know the way. How do the by-blows escape the Wood? What route do they take?"
And he knew. It had been a joke, a riff on J.M. Barrie's second star on the right and straight on 'til morning directions to Never Land: "The third tree on the left and walk backwards 'til sundown."
"Exactly. So if that is the way out, the way in must, logically, be the reverse."
"Walking in the footsteps of the monsters, forward from sundown, turn at the third tree on the right?"
"And keep on walking," the old man agreed. "Until you reach the trees. The Forgetting Wood isn't some cutesy wood that people skip and dance through like Shakespeare's Dream Wood, it is a dark, necromantic place, where those skipping travellers are nothing more than food for the monstrous by-blows of King Wolf.
"Comforting thought," Hoke said, looking out of the window. Sundown was less than an hour away. He turned away from the window. And then it occurred to him: "I need a weapon." He looked around for something – anything – that might lend itself to being a makeshift weapon, but a life of paint brushes and easels, typewriters, ribbons and inks left the arsenal of would-be death dealing implements slim. The truism about the pen being mightier than the sword had never felt less true than it did at that moment. "Heroes have weapons, and muscles and they aren't middle-aged cowards terrified of the sight of blood . . . And . . . and they are heroes . . . "
"Wrong. Heroes get their daughters back from the monster no matter what the cost. It has nothing to do with muscles or axes or age and everything to do with bringing the girl back. Heroism is something that is inside each and every one of us when we are born, Hoke. It isn't magical or mystical or even unique."
"But how? How am I supposed to take down King Wolf and bring Kerstin back? Tell me that?" An edge of hysteria had crept into Hoke's voice. He trembled violently, a mix of impotent rage and outright fear betraying his body. He held out his hands accusingly. "Look at me . . . I am nothing . . . "
"The sun will set soon. You need to be on your way. The path to the Forgetting Wood won't be open forever." The old man said, ignoring Hoke's rising panic. "You are a hero. You will bring her back. Isabella chose you to protect her child. She picked you for a reason, Hoke. She trusted you. There is no wrong, no right in this. You have to bring her home. Now put thicker clothes on. The woods are cold at night. One thing I do remember from all of the stories I read, the hero seldom dies of hypothermia before he can rescue the princess, wouldn't want to set a precedent."
He went through to the small kitchen and turned the cutlery draw out; looking for the heavy meat cleaver. He hefted it in his hand, imagining fighting King Wolf with it, but it didn't feel right. He dropped it on the floor amid the rest of the knives, forks and spoons. Instead, he went through to the bedroom and chose a thick cable-knit sweater and a pair of sturdy hiking boots for the forest trail. He readied himself in silence. He studied the man in the mirror. "Not exactly a hero," he said to his mirror-self.
"But not a fool, either," the old man said, coming up behind him. "Time to go."
"Will you be here when I get back?"
"No. Staying longer would drain the Life Stone dangerously, besides, I need to go home and die. I want to do it with my daughter by my side, Hoke. Don't let me down." The old man coughed; a deep, wracking cough that hacked up flecks of blood. And then he smiled. "I know you won't."
"You're dying?" Hoke said, stupidly. Once the old man said it, it was obvious to see. Time had not been kind to him.
"The only certainty, and all that, yes, and don't ask how old I am, I don't want to spoil the surprise. Coming back here, now, was one last desperate adventure. I had hoped to change my life, to get that damned Wood out of it, but I should have known I was too stubborn to listen, even to myself. So now, I will go home to die, in my favourite chair, with a good brandy in hand, a cigar and some soulful female singer's voice serenading me off this mortal coil. It won't be a morbid affair. After all, it isn't the end, merely another beginning. You know, I always had a soft spot for Julia Fordham's voice. She sings like an angel . . . My Last Goodbye . . . That feels like a fitting song to die to."
"Oh god, I used to love that song . . . I haven't listened to it in ages."
"I have a feeling you'll listen to it a lot more after I am gone."
They shook hands rather sombrely. Hoke took one last look around, trying to fix everything in his mind in case he didn't come back, and then he looked at the old man and smiled, "You know, don't you? You know if I make it."
"No, it took me until the end of my life to realise where she went . . . I missed her every day of my life, but I didn't understand the significance of Isabella's story and that damned book. I don't know the woman she would have become if King Wolf had never taken her, I can only imagine, but, with your help, I can get her back and I can die with all of the memories you make for me."
"I'll bring her back." Hoke said. "I promise."
"I'm counting on it," the old man said.
With only a few minutes until sunset, Hoke left the warehouse. Too impatient to wait for the rickety old freight elevator he ran down the stairs, taking them two and three at a time. He almost tripped over his own feet in his haste. He hit the street running. He looked left and right but there were no trees in either direction. There was however a twisted church spire a few streets away, its angelic weathervane pointing in the direction of the setting sun. He chose to read it as an omen. He ran toward the church.
Decay ate at the once holy building, the stonework had collapsed, the keystone of the centre arch shattered into thousands of fragments. One caught his eye, shaped like a star. Hoke bent to pick it up. He slipped it into his pocket. Amid the rubble he found two splintered wooden laths that had been nailed together and looked like a child's pretend sword. Picking his way across the broken stones, he retrieved the wooden sword, and hefted it as though it were a heroes' great sword. Across the street he saw a line of trees, blossom trees, though without their fragrant flowers. He looked up at the sky. The sun was gone. It had dipped below the horizon while he rummaged through the rubble in search of weapons. He looked back at the line of trees.
"Third one on the right," he said, seeing that it marked the mouth of a shadowy alleyway. "And straight on until you reach the trees . . . which will probably be in the dead of the night."
There was a peculiar kind of fairy tale logic to the whole thing. Hoke tucked the wooden sword into his belt and headed for the alleyway.
It was cold, colder than by rights it ought to have been. The chill cut through the thick wool of his sweater. He wondered what Grillo, ever the pragmatist that he was, would say if he could see him now, armed with a wooden sword going off on a fool's quest to slay the beast that had kidnapped his daughter who wasn't, it turned out, even his own flesh and blood but actually the spawn of some monstrous by-blow from the overrun garden of Eden. It stretched the realm of the improbable right to the point of breaking.
He studied the stars as he walked, wondering if his little girl was even under the same sky.
She wasn't. He knew in his heart that she wasn't. As he walked, tears began to blur his eyes, melting the various constellations all into one. When he finally wiped them away the familiar celestial bodies were all out of place; there was no Big Dipper, no Orion's Belt, no Northern Crown, no pole star. Instead a jumble of misplaced stars filled the sky. He was under a different sky. And when he stopped looking up and looked straight ahead instead, he saw the end of the alley, and beyond it, a wall of thick-trunked trees wreathed in moss and choked by climbing plants and tall grasses.
The Forgetting Wood.
"If you go down to the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise . . . if you go down to the woods today, you'll never believe your eyes . . . " Hoke hummed, the Teddy Bear's Picnic sounding suddenly sinister in his ears.
He felt their eyes on him. Felt their hunger. The by-blows of the Forgetting Wood. The monsters. They were there, just behind the shadows, watching him while he stood in the mouth of the alley. The trees were oppressive and uninviting but somewhere deep in their dark heart King Wolf had his daughter. Hoke reached down instinctively for the reassurance of his wooden sword. Comforted, he stepped out of the alley and into the necromantic forest.
And immediately wished he had brought a torch.
The darkness crowded in around him. The shadow shapes of the by-blows hovered on all sides, thickening the darkness with their presence. They smelled his blood, his humanity, his soul; all of the things that marked him as different from the creatures of the wood. There was nothing he could do about it, he realised. He had toyed with the idea of disguising himself by dressing up in the monster's skin and pretending to be one of them. A sheep in wolf's clothing. It wouldn't work. His humanity betrayed him . . . where they could put on the skin of a man or woman and walk down the street like anyone else, passing unnoticed and unremarkable in his world, he was doomed by the simple existence of his soul to shine like a beacon in theirs.
And as if the thought triggered it, a faint luminescence flared from his hands and face, repelling the darkness. He knew what it was, it was his soul shining. It was the light of his life. Hoke breathed deeply of the forest scents, the heightened smell of wet leaves and rotted wood, the sharp tang of sodden earth, the bitterness of decay beneath it all, and all around him, the putrefying reek of the by-blows. Hoke held his hands out in front of him as he pushed on, deeper into the forest. Soon, the undergrowth choked around the trees, swallowing the path he was following. He tore at the vegetation, slicing and stinging his hands on the thorns and nettles as he pulled them aside. All around him, the by-blows howled, their animalistic cries seemed to rise in pitch and desperation as he forged deeper into the heart of the forest. The further in he pushed, the thicker and tougher the brambles and vines grew until he couldn't force them aside or break through them.
Tears streaming down his face, Hoke called out: "Kirsten?"
His voice died in the trees, unanswered.
He sank to his knees, beaten by the wood, without ever seeing the King it hid in its dark heart.
Around him the by-blows grunted and snarked; he knew they were laughing at him. Laughing at the pathetic man who had thought to slay King Wolf with his wooden sword and couldn't even get through the trees and bushes let alone face the King. The hilt of the wooden sword dug into his side. He yanked it out of his belt and was about to hurl it into the undergrowth when he saw how it transformed in his soul-bright hands into a flaming sword alight with cascading runes. The air whistled as the whisper-thin blade sliced through it. Hoke stared at the sword and started laughing. It was a crazy, hysterical laughter, as the insanity of the last few hours rushed to overtake him. He stood, swinging the flaming sword wildly. It sheered through the thick undergrowth effortlessly. Laughing all the more, he hacked and slashed and cleaved at the bracken, forcing the Forgetting Wood to offer up its secrets. The by-blows weren't laughing now. They were afraid; afraid of the mad man with the flaming sword.
And with good reason.
He was unstoppable.
The forest went quiet; beyond quiet.
The lack of noise was creepy. It wasn't natural for a forest to be so lacking in reminders of life. Still, he fought on. The cloying undergrowth flinched back from the flaming sword. With one final swing Hoke staggered into the heart of the Forgetting Wood. A clearing. For a moment he thought he had cut all the way through the forest and out of the far side because instead of trees and dirt the clearing was scattered with remnants of the real world; a fire hydrant, broken paving stones, a dried up fountain with faceless cherubs frozen in place, and in the very centre, a single apple tree. And then they stepped out of the trees ringing the clearing, an army of King Wolf's by-blows; twenty, thirty, fifty of the creatures surrounded him. Still more seeped out of the darkness. They were grotesque. They wore every sickness and affliction he could imagine. Their deformities twisted them. Some wore their insides on the outside, their bodies only partially formed, their ribcages peeled back on their guts, the skin flaking away from their shoulders like butterflies or angels wings. Some had tails. Others horns. They were unlike anything Hoke had ever seen. In the fitful light of the flaming sword and his soul-bright hands they looked . . . demonic.
There were hundreds of them now, surrounding him.
His palms were sweating. The sword hilt felt slick in his hands. He was shaking, the shakes accentuated along the length of the sword. Hoke swung the flaming sword, trying to ward the by-blows off. It seemed to work. They melted away from the menace of the sword, to left or right. Then he understood why: King Wolf, a huge wolfen creature strode into the peculiar clearing. He carried Kirsten on his shoulders. She looked different. Content. He understood then that she was one of them; not his little girl at all. She was a creature of the Forgetting Wood. She belonged to King Wolf.
"No," Hoke said quietly.
The wolf man moved awkwardly – but then it was a creature best suited to prowling on all fours, not walking upright like a man. It approached the apple tree in the centre of the clearing, plucked one of the dead fruits from a low branch, and bit into it. The creature chewed once, twice, then spat the flesh of the fruit out into the dirt beneath its padded feet and tossed the shiny red apple to Hoke.
"Eat," King Wolf said. "Your kind love this stuff, right? I never developed a taste for it myself. Give me man-meat any day. Nice and juicy."
Hoke stared at the apple in his hand, then tossed it in a high arc over the heads of the by-blows and the trees ringing the grove.
"Oh well, what is it they say? Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me . . . Still, now that that whole temptation thing is out of the way. What are you doing my wood, mortal?"
"I've come to kill you and take my daughter home," Hoke said, sounding considerably braver than he felt.
"Really? How positively marvellous. You've come all this way . . . across all this time . . . only to die now. That is perhaps the most tragic thing I have ever heard." King Wolf said mockingly. Around the perimeter the by-blows chuckled. It was a vile sound.
"Kirsten," Hoke said, ignoring the wolf. "Come to daddy, darling." He held out his hand for her. Instead of running to him, she clung all the more tightly to King Wolf's neck. She looked at him as though he were some kind of monster. "What have you done to her?"
"Done? Nothing. She's home now, dead man. She is among her kind. Surrounded by her family. Her real family."
"I am her family," Hoke said, desperately wishing it were true. Knowing it wasn't. Knowing that Isabella had lied to him. That his twin loves, wife and daughter, were creatures of this world. By-blows of the Forgetting Wood. "It doesn't matter what you say," he said. "She is my child. Mine and Isabella's. We raised her together. That is all that matters. You are nothing. Less than nothing. An accident of biology."
"HOW DARE YOU!" King Wolf bellowed, spittle flying from his jowls as they snarled back to bare his fangs. "Kill him," he ordered the by-blows. "Tear him limb from limb but save the heart for me. I want to eat the fool's heart."
They came at him as a pack, sharp teeth snapping at his legs. The pain as they sank into his flesh was unbearable. Without thinking Hoke reached into his pocket and felt the star-shaped stone. He threw it, left handed, at the laughing shape of King Wolf. He didn't know what he had expected of the weird stone but as it sailed through the air it gave off this high pitched whizzing before it exploded in a shower of blazing, brilliant colour. The light was blinding in its intensity. The by-blows staggered back from the light, their peculiar eyes burned by the shocking light. Hoke didn't hesitate, he threw himself into the attack. He cut and cleaved with the flaming sword, driving the by-blows back as he fought his way through to King Wolf. They couldn't touch him. They tried – with desperate frenzy – but they simply couldn't lay a claw on Hoke. His skin burned with the purity of the white soul-bright fire.
"My, what big teeth you've got, Grandma," Hoke laughed, hacking off a paw that a heartbeat before had been raking at his face. The by-blow fell back, bleeding. There were no screams from the creatures as they died.
"All the better . . . oh who the fuck am I kidding," King Wolf said, setting Kirsten down on the side of the dried up fountain. Turning to face Hoke his claws extended like silver knives ready to cut, cut, cut . . . the steel-like blades sliced the air like grotesque scissors. King Wolf was wounded already. Each wound Hoke had dealt a by-blow was reflected in their master's hide. The wolf man's tongue lolled in his slack jowls, licking across the sharpened tips of his yellowed teeth. "Let's fight, dead man."
The remaining by-blows backed away from Hoke, a few dragging their fallen brethren with them as they retreated to the edge of the grove. Hoke levelled the tip of the flaming sword at King Wolf, the licks of fire chasing up the runic blade. "I'm ready." He said.
"You do know that is just two bits of wood nailed together, don't you?" King Wolf said, shattering the sword's glamour. Standing there with a pretend sword in his hand Hoke looked ridiculous. "That's better. Now, about that dying we were discussing... Get on with it." The wolf man launched himself at Hoke, spittle flying from his mouth as he hurtled across the gap between them.
Hoke barely managed to fend the monster off, bringing the makeshift sword up to parry the beast's snapping teeth. The wooden lath splintered beneath the fierce bite. Hoke staggered backward beneath the sheer dizzying ferocity of the beast's attack. His foot came down hard upon the jagged points of the star-shaped rock, sending shooting pains up through his entire body. He spun away from the pain, no thought behind the sudden movement. His arm spasmed, jerking the wooden sword out of King Wolf's mouth – or at least half of it, with a jagged end where the beast's bite had crunched through the wood. King Wolf dropped the other half of the pretend sword on the floor. Splinters from it had lodged in the beasts' mouth drawing dozens of points of blood. King Wolf looked confused by the pain and had no way of removing the splinters. Hoke saw his chance and threw himself forward, the ragged end of the wooden sword plunging deep into King Wolf's confused eye. The beast sagged, beaten.
"Bugger . . . " the wolf man moaned. "A freaking toy sword . . . " He pawed at the dirt but couldn't rise. Hoke stood over his fallen foe.
"I'm taking her home." He said.
"You don't understand . . . " King Wolf said, barely able to speak. The creature was fading fast. "It's all yours now . . . you . . . are the King . . . by right of . . . combat. You can't just . . . turn your . . . back . . . and go . . . With no one to remember them . . . to care . . . they will . . . die . . . all of my . . . angels . . . "
"Yes, I can." Hoke said. He bent down and lifted his daughter into his arms and turned to walk back out of the Forgetting Wood the way he had come – but it wasn't the way he had come: around him the trees shrank back, as though being purged from existence by the sheer fierce heat of his dissipating anger. In moments where there had trees there were houses and streets and a battered street sign that said Angel Road. He held Kirsten close to him.
"Our King," one of the by-blows moaned, its flesh freezing slowly into the shape of a statue as the rigour of concrete crept up its legs, through its torso and arms and finally its head while Hoke watched, horrified by the monstrous transformation. He had done it, for a split second he had imagined the by-blow as a faceless statue and as soon as that image had entered his mind the metamorphosis had begun. Hoke walked up to the faceless statue. He reached up to touch the smooth stone where its' face should have been. His fingers trailed over the stone, giving it a face. As his fingers came away from the statue he marvelled at the likeness. The statue wore Kirsten's face, older, wiser, grown up.
He held his daughter close to his chest, needing the sensation of her life beating against his.
The by-blows stared in awe and reverence at the statue he had made. Awe, reverence and fear, he realised. They were terrified of him. Breathing deeply, he began to walk toward the sun, and home. The new streets that had subsumed the trees were a maze of brick and mortar.
"Breadcrumbs," he told Kirsten, smoothing her hair back from her face. "Should have used breadcrumbs to mark the path."
"Stones," she told him. "Much better to use stones . . . they don't blow away and birds won't eat them."
"Clever girl," he said.
A rag-clothed man stepped into their path. Dressed in rags with sores and cankers and blisters and pustules, Hoke recognised him twice, once as Mr. Self Affliction, the hobo from Princess Scapegoat, the poor man who torments himself with a thousand and one of the most appalling sicknesses known to man in a single night, and again as himself, the older him he had met a few long hours ago. It seemed fitting that the old man had chosen the form of Mr. Self Affliction – a vile man, a liar and a thief, a faker . . .
"You did it," the old man said, rubbing his hands together as he gloated. He stumped across the street to where the corpse of King Wolf lay. "I knew you had it in you, my boy . . . " he muttered. He knelt and expertly began skinning the wolf's pelt with a knife he had taken from Hoke's kitchen. A few quick cuts, some ripping and he had himself a bloody coat of fur. "A sheep in wolf's clothing, eh?"
The man wolf's jaws rested on the old man's shoulder like a second head.
"A wolf, more like." Hoke said, staring at himself in disgust. Something about the way he skinned the dead king of Forgetting Wood and wore him like a cloak betrayed the true nature of Mr. Self Affliction – of Hoke himself . . .
The by-blows came hesitantly at first, edging up toward the three of them. They bowed and scraped, some bending so low that their foreheads touched the floor. "Master," a bloated thing lisped. "Our Lord," another said. "Our King."
Hoke stared at the ghastly diorama. "You . . . it was all a lie wasn't it? It was you. You brought Kirsten here, you turned her over to King Wolf . . . like some kind of offering . . . . and then you sent me to kill him because you were too old, too weak to do it . . . you were dying . . . you said so yourself."
"Ah, is that the light dawning? Have you finally worked out what this place is? This is Angel Home, Eden, The Forgetting Wood, Nirvana, Shangri-La, and every other paradise in between. This is heaven and hell . . . And you heard these pathetic creatures . . . I am their master now. They are my angels . . . just like Kirsten. Never forget, boy, she is one of them – for all that she looks like flesh and blood, she is one of them . . . Yes, I was dying, but not now, not now . . . I fixed that . . . This is my paradise, frozen out of time . . . Here I am ever-living . . . I am The Eternal. Go home and play with our daughter, boy. Enjoy her childhood. And worry every day about how you could possibly grow up to become me . . . because you know you do. Agonize over the simple truth that some part of you is prepared to do anything, including sacrificing your own soul, to cheat death . . . No matter how much you might wish it otherwise, the world isn't some moral little fairy tale. There is a monster in everyone. Even you."
Hoke turned his back on the old man and started walking away.
"I am not you," he said in a voice to quiet to carry to the old man.
"Oh, but you are," his daughter whispered in his ear. "And one day he will be all that remains of you . . . "
Story Copyright © 2004 by Steven Savile. All rights reserved.
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About the author
Steve has spent the last few years working very hard at becoming an overnight success. He has edited a number of critically acclaimed anthologies, including the charity works Elemental (with Alethea Kontis) and Redbrick Eden.
Steve's original novels and short story collections include: Temple: Incarnations, Laughing Boy's Shadow, Houdini's Last Illusion, Angel Road, and the graphic novel Fragrance of You (with artist Robert Sammelin), the companion piece to the above story.
As well as Slaine, Steve is the author of numerous other tie-ins, including the Von Carstein Vampire trilogy (Inheritance, Dominion, Retribution), Slaine books for 2000 AD and a trilogy of novels for Black Flame (The Exile, The Defiler). He has also written for Star Wars, Jurassic Park, three incarnations of The Doctor and most recently for Torchwood.