As Finnen told his story, both Petka (who typically didn’t like to remain still for long) and Chaim listened in rapt attention. To look at Finnen was akin to a glimpse at trauma, at least outwardly. His bald head, long purple scar, and five o’clock shadow gave him the countenance of some strange, out of work super-villain. His ragged clothes, and propensity for drinking the fermented products of unicorns and gnomes (all with a disturbing sort of vigor) would betray him as some kind of fomenting madman, though undeniably, his rough exterior would never have hinted at such a gentle heart and such a backstory- to observe Finnen as a whole, rather than in individual pieces would have never revealed how the Finnen of yesteryear became the Finnen of today. He was a creation of trauma, no doubt, baptized in his blood and broken bones, and yet (despite all he had been through), he managed a smile and a helping, if not calloused hand.
Both Petka and Chaim were quite glad that the Irishman was on their side- in short, the man standing in front of them, tipsily swaying from gnome-grain liquor, and whistling “Whiskey on a Sunday” was a good man- and a dangerously good man at that.
Now, running his hand over the slick skin of his head, he turned his gaze towards Petka, asking, “So what about you lot? Fawcett, you look like you might have a story. People with beards usually do.”
“I suppose you’re right,” said Petka, (not entirely sure if this was an actual maxim), “But there really isn’t much to tell. I grew up with my parents and my younger brother- a better person than most– he lives and works in Philadelphia, where I originally came from.
“Growing up for us was suitably normal, though I never really fit in anywhere. It wasn’t because I was different per se- I’m not exactly deformed and I’m certainly no Adonis. I was always polite, never caused any trouble, but just never really properly mixed.”
“Why is that? Ya seem okay to me,” said Finnen with a little belch.
“I could never quite figure it out myself but…Well, the best way I can explain it is like this. Take a single drop of oil and put it in a full pint glass of water, then shake it gently. Now while everything is moving, try to spot the oil. You can’t- I mean, I’ve never tried- but you get the point- that little drop of oil is mixed up with all water- no better, no worse- but it simply can’t mix in. It’s just different. It doesn’t know why, nor does the water know why. It isn’t separate because of malice, it just is.
“I guess it was all for the better anyway. As time went on, I always wanted…well, needed to be on the move- wanderlust, I guess it’s called. As exhausted as I was, with all the prickers and thistles and briars I felt inside, it was the moving of my own two feet that kept me going, even after I wore the soles of my shoes as thin as paper. But there was something beyond it all… it’s hard to explain. I mean, aside from catharsis within and without, it was like…”
“Like you heard the song of the lonely places?” offered Chaim, leaning upon his staff.
“Yes…Yes, exactly. I could identify…Hear? in a sense- forgotten places, begging to be found, to be named… to be seen.”
“And it’s almost like a Siren’s Song, isn’t it?” Chaim had the barest crease of a little grin on his canine face.
“Irresistible, in fact- my wanderings took me far from my family- it was like I was… I was called ever onward.”
Chaim nodded again, then rested his chin on his folded, wolfish hands, began to speak in a more serious tone than usual.
“She- well rather it is a spirit of the past and present, of the woodlands and the seas- a great invisible thing that settles onto parts of the land or water. In the wooded parts of the world, you’d know it by silence- it takes all the bird-song and the chirping of crickets, and even the breeze away to make its voice heard- her song is silence, the starkness of it makes it all the louder- then, she sends all those things she momentarily silenced out over the trees, into your homes, into your sleep.
“Oh, don’t make any mistake- it’s hardly benevolent- more neutral than anything else. Its song is meant to lead travelers astray, or get them to turn back, or have them disappear only to be found as bones in a hollow tree…or, for some, take them to places beyond imagination. She is both the perfect liar and truthful guide all at once, depending on who’s listening.
“It’s an ancient thing- tries to stop civilization from encroaching to quickly- but hardly autonomous. A relic, a programmed something, carrying out an impossible job that doesn’t really need doing- men are such tenacious things. But you, Petka- well, you’re a special one, aren’t you? But why should I be surprised? You’re a man more of the woods than in the woods.”
“It’s the blank spots on the map- marked with monsters, or Kingdoms, the likes of which Prester John himself would be impressed with. But it’s not enough to assume ‘Here there be Tygers’ – I wanted to see them; I needed… no, need to keep moving, Tygers or no- all the secret hollows, all the crumbling standing stones, all the lonely cairns… I never thought I would end up in a place like this, but it’s what I always hoped to find. Not a home, not a mortgage, not romance- these were all decidedly out of reach anyway… no, something that nobody has ever seen before, even if the cost is nobody ever seeing me again.”
Here, Chaim gave a little laugh.
“Impressive, and even laudable Petka; such a rare worldview. What you have to understand is that the world is full of secret places- some lead back here, others to places even I couldn’t understand and I’m older than I care to admit. These are places where time is either lazy, asleep, or dead; little pocket places where the things that men and beasts dream of come to be, only they don’t vanish upon a mortal waking.
“Think- a thousand little focal points of arcane treasures- of cities both thriving, and dead- their bones breaking up the horizon by jutting ragged or whole into the sky- but even they contain knowledge from the deepest levels of dreams; things so sensitive to the waking world that they would shrivel and die if robbed of their cloak of somnolence. Ah! A little flash in your eyes, Petka- but here is the issue. Your little village–all little villages will grow over time, and the secrets of the forest will be hidden- it’s happened innumerable times- people build, populate; villages grow to kingdoms, kingdoms fall to dust, and the forest takes it back. It’s a circle to forever remain unbroken. And places like this? The only reason they can be found, counter-intuitively, is because they have something to hide behind- whether its a wall of thistles, a ragged outcropping of rocks, or just beyond the ranges.
‘But when civilization encroaches- when all those little hiding places disappear- the thickets cut, the ranges flattened, the rocks scattered- with those little landmarks gone, all the portals to arcane and out of the way places are just there– naked and invisible, though in plain sight, so to speak. They can’t be found because with nothing to peer behind there is no way to find yourself there and back- and, well, they might as well not exist at all. The old signs, calls, whistles, knocks- they don’t apply- and without something to peek behind and something to see, there’s no way to differentiate something so wonderfully esoteric from the maddeningly prosaic. It’s not a matter of a needle in a haystack, or even a grain of sand on a beach- it’s more like breathing underwater- sure, oxygen is there, but without gills…”
“I came here over a little wooden bridge,” added Petka, “I have no idea who put it there, and had never seen it before.”
“Exactly,” said Chaim, nodding, “That bridge, and many other things, brought you hear. These secret places are everywhere, but impossible to find without a way to separate them from the well-trod paths, or talking wires, sooty buildings, barbershops, five and dimes…”
“That’s terrible,” said Petka, dejected.
“Oh, not so,”corrected Chaim, “It’s actually quite wonderful. You humans never cease to amaze- when you’ve been around as long as I have… each cycle brings something new, something grander, built not alone with arcanism, but also with sweat equity- always reaching higher.”
“And then?” asked Petka, sitting now on the edge of his seat.
“And then, it’s destroyed- first from within, then from without. Then, the land takes it back, and someone crawls out of some secret somewhere, and it starts all over again. All the secret places can be found again, some even whispering to the ambitious dreamer a grand plan for a village or castle- not always human, of course, but then again variety is the spice of life. “New beings, new little gods- or ‘new management’ as I prefer to call them- soaring highs, abysmal lows- love and war and strife and peace- all played out over countless centuries. It’s quite wonderful to observe, even if it’s a little boring in the middle bits.”
Petka sat back and took in Chaim’s words- it was the most esoteric, maddening thing Chaim had said so far, but it made some bit of sense to him- everything in nature wants to be a circle; the straight line or rather intentional straight line was made by man, perhaps first as a wall to keep the forest back; then enemy soldiers, then to form houses and pubs and mansions and then-
“Then the forest takes it back,” said Petka, head spinning with information that made him all at once dizzy and homesick.
“All back.” said the Spirit of the Lonely hollows with a wide yawn.
“Canid,” said a tipsy Finnen, his piercing green eyes fluttering in want for sleep, “This may be the drink talkin’, but that’s the first goddamn bit of sense you’ve made since I met ya.” Here, Finnen opened a window to let the breeze in.
“Well, a kind of compliment. Thank you Irish. I’d shake your hand, but I see that you are presently urinating out the window.”
“Well sorry I wasn’t aware I was in the company of a schoolmarm. Jay-sus. Anyway, this is gonna take a while, so just keep doin’ what yer doin’.”
“Well, of course!” replied Chaim with mock enthusiasm, “You just keep pissing out of the window, you know- as one does.”
Petka brought the conversation back to the decidedly more interesting topic of the forest, and away from urinating out of a window.
“So this spirit of the woodlands- it she…it a stupid thing?”
“Not so much stupid- it just lacks, what now…” Chaim scratched his chin searching for the word, “It lacks autonomy. It’s more of a construct than anything else. Terrible conversationalist. That was a joke.”
“Well if it doesn’t think for itself, who or what thinks for it?”
“It’s not quite like that, but you’re on the right track. I was created by a now ousted god to be a- damn it, let’s face it, like I said- a glorified tour guide, taking people along a Pilgrim’s Path, little badge and hat and everything. But there was always some conflict- always was, always will be. So some little god’s kingdom created that unthinking siren to cause enough havoc to keep people away for the most part; others like me were put in place as a sort of control- keep the pilgrims in and on the right path.”
Here, Chaim actually put upon his head a hat which read “Lore Guide”, and a button that read, “Ask me about the reigning god!”
“Wisps? Are they involved?” asked Petka eagerly.
“Yes, very much so! Like me, they are another ‘control mechanism’. There are different types- some no smarter than plants, though some are thinking and sentient. And their ‘manager’, a singularly repulsive thing, is in charge of the smarter ones- the wild wisps just sort of do their own thing. Their manager took her.. his… its- not sure of what pronoun to use- job a little to seriously and raised a little fiefdom of her own- then, like any typical manager, decorated it in paperwork and red tape, so to speak. Repulsive. But enough about her- haven’t seen anything besides a wild wisp in decades. Maybe she retired. Gods, that would be great! Bloated Oaf.”
“What was the city like? I mean the one when you first came on the scene,” asked Finnen, now reclining in a chair, drinking coffee from some unknown stash, no longer tired.
“Good question. Get comfortable, it’s a long story.” Chaim cleared his throat, angrily dismissed Finnen’s offer of more gnome-grain alcohol, and began to speak.