The leap, p.7
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       The Leap, p.7
 

           Jonathan Stroud
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  ‘Do you need help?’

  The voice seemed to come from very high up. Then I remembered that I was crouched on the ground. It was no good. I had to face it, whatever it was. Slowly, I drew one knee forwards, then the other. Shakily, I got to my feet. Fine. Now I was standing. But it was still behind me. And so, with little shuffles of the feet, I turned and looked.

  And screamed.

  Green eyes, like buried pebbles, gazing into mine.

  A long thin face with pale green hair.

  For a moment I was back in the swirling water, with cold thin hands clutching me, drawing me down . . . I nearly fainted, but then my eyes registered the rest of what I saw.

  It was a man’s face, with eyebrows raised in mild enquiry. It was leathery-lean and, though the bright eyes were flecked with green, I had been mistaken about the hair. It was tinted by the emerald light of the foliage above, but now I saw that it was brown – curly light brown hair that hung low to fringe his face.

  He was tall, angular in body, and wore a pair of flannel trousers, brown shoes, a shirt and coloured waistcoat. And his head was slightly cocked on one side, as if he was waiting for something.

  Fear still hung heavy in my stomach. What should I do? He was not attacking me, just standing there, with a quizzical expression. Should I speak? What should I say?

  ‘Have I startled you?’ the man said.

  I cleared my throat, which was very dry. ‘Um, yes,’ I said. ‘I thought you were someone else.’

  One of the stranger’s eyebrows climbed a little higher. ‘Indeed?’ he said. His voice was soft, slightly amused. He seemed to be expecting something more.

  ‘I’ve had a bit of a shock,’ I said. ‘Sorry I shouted.’

  ‘Not at all.’ He didn’t seem threatening, but I had had more than enough. I wanted to get away, to be by myself again. I stepped forwards as if to pass him.

  ‘Which direction have you come from?’ he said suddenly. His voice caught me by surprise, and I answered him.

  ‘Through the forest.’

  ‘I know that.’ The stranger shifted impatiently from one long thin foot to another. ‘I mean beyond the trees. Which direction did you come from?’

  This left me a little at a loss. ‘I don’t know the exact direction, I’m afraid. There is a hill back there which I had to cross. And before that, a whole ridge of crags with desert beyond. I came over the desert.’

  The stranger’s eyebrows shot up so far they almost disappeared under the looping curls of his forehead. ‘Really?’ he murmured. ‘As far as that? I am impressed.’

  Despite myself, I was pleased by this reaction. ‘It’s taken a good while,’ I added. The desert went on for days and days. But I crossed it all right.’

  ‘Very determined.’ The stranger scratched the side of his chin.

  ‘Yes. And before that I crossed the sea.’ I was swelling up a bit at the evident magnitude of my achievement but, as I said this, the stranger laughed.

  ‘Oh yes?’ he said. ‘How did you do that then?’

  And I had no idea, of course. I couldn’t think back beyond the beach. I was silent. The stranger’s eyes were on me, unblinking. Eventually, I knew I had to speak.

  ‘I’m afraid I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It’s strange. I just woke up by the beach. It’s all blank before that.’

  ‘Naturally,’ he said. ‘It would be odd if it were otherwise.’

  I suspected I was being made a fool of. ‘Well, I’m sorry I disturbed you,’ I went on. ‘I had better be going. Goodbye.’

  I began to move off, but the man had turned and was walking alongside. ‘Perhaps we are going the same way,’ he said.

  This was unexpected. What should I do? He was the first person I had met (I would not count the dead thing), and though it made a change to talk to someone, I had no idea what he wanted. Every time his green eyes sparkled, the memory of the women in the water rose again into my mind. I wanted to be free of him.

  ‘Are you looking for someone?’ he said.

  That shocked me. He could see in my face that it was so.

  ‘How do you know?’ I said feebly.

  ‘Perhaps I have seen him.’

  I stopped right where I was. I didn’t bother hiding my eagerness. ‘Tell me,’ I said. ‘Who have you seen?’

  But the stranger held up a long thin hand. ‘Wait. We should do this properly. Introductions first, then information. I don’t know anything about you.’

  ‘All right,’ I said. ‘What’s your name, first?’

  ‘Kit. Yours?’

  ‘Charlie.’

  ‘Good. That’s better. Well, Charlie, tell me who you are looking for, and I’ll tell you who I’ve seen.’

  ‘I’m looking for my friend Max,’ I said. ‘He’s about my age. A bit taller than me. Brown hair, straight. Bit podgy. White trainers. Jeans maybe. But I’m not sure what he’s wearing actually.’

  To my surprise, the stranger – Kit – gave a sudden decisive nod. ‘I’ve seen him,’ he said. ‘He came through here. A couple of days ago.’

  ‘Two days!’ The time gap wounded me even as I celebrated the confirmation. ‘How was he? What was he like? Did he speak to you?’

  ‘I did not speak to him. You don’t, when you meet walkers in the wood.’

  I felt a chill of unease. ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘You haven’t seen anyone else yourself?’

  ‘Well . . . I saw something. Back there, just now. But it wasn’t a person. It was . . .’ I couldn’t say it.

  Kit seemed sympathetic. He patted my shoulder. ‘That must have been a shock for you. Especially if you saw one of them close up.’

  ‘You’re not saying that Max is like . . .’

  ‘No, no. Not at all. He seemed in the peak of health. But it is wise to be cautious in the forest. I only approached you because it seemed like you needed help. Besides, I could not have stopped Max even if I wanted to. He walked very fast.’

  ‘Excuse me, I must get on.’ Two days ahead of me, Max was alone among the terrible things of the forest. I began to stride forwards, tears welling in my eyes, but Kit kept pace beside me.

  ‘You seem distressed, Charlie,’ he said. ‘Perhaps I can help?’

  ‘I must catch him, that’s all.’ I was breathing fast, short of speech, panicking a little, not thinking straight. Above us, the great trees rose up to ever more gigantic heights, shrouding us with green stillness.

  ‘Wait for a moment.’

  ‘Sorry. I must get on.’ Fast as I could. No time to pause.

  ‘Wait.’

  Something in the tone of voice. A soft command that broke through the fraying tension and the clamouring anxiety in my head. Wait . . . I halted, eyes wide and staring. He walked a little way ahead of me, and looked upwards.

  We were standing at the foot of one of the giant trunks that supported the distant overarching roof. This trunk was so huge that as I craned my head right back so that my neck really hurt, and followed its column up into the dim reaches of the cathedral-space, the straightness of the trunk was distorted and actually appeared to bend into the distance. There were one or two branches that protruded here and there along the giant trunk, and these were well-supplied with thick green foliage. I thought that just one of these branches must be the size of an ordinary oak tree, but here they were tiny, dwarfed by the colossal trunk and the space beyond them. In the distance was the true canopy, an indistinct haze.

  Kit gazed for a moment into this enormous space. There was not a sound in the forest. Then he spread his arms out wide.

  It suddenly seemed to me that the distant canopy far overhead changed colour, as if a shutter to the side had suddenly been opened to the sun and its bright light allowed to fall across the leaves. A dash of brilliant white flared across the emerald canopy, mingling with the green for a moment, seemingly about to be engulfed by it, and then, with a kind of surge, fighting itself free. It grew more and more defined as I watched, a lowering roof of flickering whit
e and silvers, brightening as it fell.

  For a minute it denied every attempt to make out details; I had to squint, my eyes hurt with the light. Then suddenly, everything came into focus, came into being – a hundred thousand glorious white birds with plumes and wings and tails of silver descending through the air.

  Down and down they came, and now the air was rushing with the noise, the astounding ear-convulsing quivering and sighing of a million feathers on the wing.

  Down they came, and with the whole space filled with the hurtling mass of shimmering beaks and claws and with the noise drowning the air so that I feared even to breathe, I crouched myself into a ball and covered my head with my arms. Then the noise was on me with a great roar and a buffeting all around. My ears stung, I gritted my teeth with the pain of it . . .

  Then there was silence.

  I opened my eyes and looked out from under my arm. I slowly stood. The forest floor was transformed as if by the coming of winter. In every direction it was a sea of white. A hundred thousand birds had alighted on the turf, blocking out the grass except in the space immediately around my feet. The great black columns of the trees erupted starkly from the whiteness, and a little way off, the stranger stood with his arms aloft, a single white bird perching on one hand.

  All the birds were still. The stranger caught my eye. He smiled.

  ‘The forest has many treasures,’ he said. ‘You must learn to watch for them. If you do, they will give themselves up to you. A fool has eyes only for the ground.’

  I said nothing. My eyes were too busy, drinking it in. For a few minutes neither of us moved. The birds remained on the forest floor, lifting their heads a little or pecking at the ground. It was as if a breeze were stirring a white sea. Suddenly my companion gave a slight twitch of his hand and the bird upon it lifted itself into the air. As if at a prearranged signal and with an explosion of sound, every other bird rose too, rendering me blind and deaf at their passing. Then the noise boomed and fell, and they were gone: a flickering layer of white, rising silently into the gloom.

  ‘How did you do that . . . Kit?’ I said at last. My mind was spinning with it.

  ‘Practice. Anyway, I merely wanted to divert you. Are you calmer now?’

  I nodded.

  ‘Well, Charlie, perhaps you would like to tell me your story. How you came to be here. As I said before, I might be able to help you.’

  ‘All right, but I can’t stay long,’ I said, a flicker of my old anxiety returning. But Kit sat himself beside a tree, signalled me to continue, and closed his eyes. Seeing him relaxing there made me want to rest too. So I sat myself down a little further off, crossed my legs, cleared my throat and began.

  FIFTEEN

  KIT LISTENED WITHOUT interrupting once. It took a long while, for I had never tried to communicate the truth before, except in my diary. As I got into it, I found I was standing up again, walking about, gesturing, giving the story my all. When I had finished, Kit sat staring up at me impassively with a calm and reflective expression on his face. He wasn’t in the least bit disturbed.

  ‘Interesting,’ he said. ‘Not unknown, although a trifle unusual in the details.’

  ‘But I don’t understand! I don’t understand anything!’ I found I was almost shouting. He was so matter-of-fact it infuriated me.

  ‘What don’t you understand?’

  ‘Anything!’ I did shout this time.

  ‘Ask then,’ he said simply.

  ‘All right.’ What question to ask? Start at the beginning. ‘Who were the women in the pool?’

  Kit pursed his lips. ‘Hard to say precisely. I have never met anyone like them myself. But I can tell you this. Some entrances have guards, who watch and wait for those that seek entry. On this occasion, the wardens were happy to help your friend through. He was lucky.’

  Lucky? Strange, I had not thought of Max that way before. Yet it was certainly a most peaceful country, with more delights the further you went in. I thought of the wondrous birds. Perhaps luck was involved. ‘Are there many entrances?’ I asked.

  ‘There were once more gates than could be counted. You could find them in hawthorn or apple tree, in hard stone or yielding bog, in fleeting shadows on the edge of fields. You could often guess the times they would open too – at harsh noon-hour when the shadows vanish or at midnight when the moon is full. Many people walked through them. Now there are fewer by far, most in inaccessible places – in mines and high crags, marshes and wells. They close up and are forgotten. Few find them. I say again, your friend was lucky.’

  He had been looking up at the branches overhead as he spoke. Now he suddenly looked straight at me. ‘They are the true entrances,’ he said. ‘But they are not the only way in, as you well know. Dreams are entrances too. So it has always been and always will be. A great many people find their way here in their sleep and wander awhile through the forests.’

  ‘That thing I saw – is it a dreamer too?’

  ‘No. It is a lost soul, neither of this place nor your own. It is best not to talk about it. It is the dreamers that are important. Most appear only fleetingly and drift in circles, lost among the trees. They do not know what they are looking for, you see, and have no momentum, no direction. Very soon they wake and recall nothing. They rarely find their way back to the forest and never to the same place.’

  ‘But I do,’ I said. ‘Every night I do, without trying.’

  He nodded, and gestured to my leg. ‘You have been touched,’ he said simply. I felt the blood pulsing under the healed skin of my calf, marking the place where the woman’s fingers had clawed me. I shuddered at the memory, yet Kit was still talking.

  ‘For those that have been touched, it is not so easy to forget,’ he said. ‘Memories of the forest linger during the day. You are drawn back here by those memories and by the determination of your own free will. Nevertheless, despite all that, you are still bound by the constraints of dreams.’ When I frowned, he said, ‘Put simply, you cannot stay here when you wake. The other world always draws you back. It is an unusual situation. Your access is both easy to achieve and impossible to maintain.’ He smiled ruefully. ‘How very tantalising.’

  It was quite true. I arrived here with great ease, every night, bound to Max by my love for him. I followed him as quickly as I could; perhaps I even moved faster than him for the duration of my sleep. Yet it was all to no purpose. When I woke, Max drew further away from me again. At this thought, anger filled me.

  ‘It’s so unfair!’ I shouted. I stamped my foot on the ground. ‘All I get is glimpses and never a chance to catch him.’ My friend nodded sympathetically.

  ‘It is difficult,’ he said. ‘Travellers such as Max walk fast and don’t look back.’

  ‘It’s going to drive me mad,’ I said.

  ‘Of course, there is one solution.’ Here Kit got to his feet. He put his hand on my shoulder.

  ‘What?’ There was something patronising in his action. I expected the worst.

  ‘You can give up the chase. It is only your bond to your friend that is bringing you back here. Reject that bond and you will not come back. Your friend will go and you will forget.’ He squeezed my shoulder gently.

  So I was right – he was doing me down, trying to make me give up. What did he think I was going to do? Draw back and leave Max forever in this place?

  ‘I’m sorry,’ I said politely, ‘but I couldn’t live with myself if I did that.’

  Kit gave a little half smile. His fingers clenched warmly on my shoulder. This time, the squeeze was firm and lasting; it seemed the touch of equals.

  ‘Lucky Max,’ he said, ‘to have a friend like you.’ He suddenly drew back and flung himself back down on the turf beside the path. He indicated the ground beside him. ‘Sit down then,’ he said. I sat.

  Kit tucked his long legs up so that his knees almost touched his face. He folded his arms around them. ‘As I say, your problem is unusual. Most visitors don’t remember their visits here, and most come only onc
e or twice. You are exceptional. But then, you came very close to passing through the entrance yourself and its attraction for you is very great. And, if you don’t care to take leave of Max . . .’

  ‘I don’t,’ I said.

  ‘So what other options are open to you? Well . . .’ He rested his chin on his knees and blew out a sigh of heavy thought. There was a long silence.

  ‘Where is Max going?’ I said, suddenly.

  ‘You don’t know?’

  ‘I told you, I don’t know anything about this place.’

  ‘My apologies. It’s just that I’ve been here for such a long time, I forget . . . Well, listen to the silence a moment.’

  I closed my eyes. We had been speaking in hushed tones, as befitted this great valley of sleeping trees. White birds perhaps flew far above our heads, among the distant eaves of the enormous space, but not a sound of them could be heard.

  ‘For most of the year,’ Kit said, ‘the woods are silent. They are never empty, of course; they are filled with animals, birds and flowers, and people too, such as myself who wander through them. Dreamers and new arrivals also flitter here and there restlessly. Most times of year, they drift, marvelling at the delights around them, and you would probably have caught your friend quite quickly if you had come then.

  ‘However, at this time of year, things change in the forest. The reason for this is the Great Fair.’

  Whether or not there was a suggestion of suppressed excitement in his voice, the very words made my heart quicken. The Great Fair. A frisson of anticipation ran down my back.

  ‘This Fair,’ Kit said, ‘is held by the people of this country to celebrate the turning of the seasons. It heralds the approach of winter.’ There was a bright green light shining in his eyes as he spoke. ‘And every imaginable delight and festivity takes place in it. For the most part, during the rest of the year, the people of this country are a solitary lot. We mind our own business, you might say. But during the time of the Fair, all manner of games and entertainments occur. Just off the top of my head, at last year’s Fair, we had jugglers, dancers, acrobats, amusing burlesques, mimes and pantomimes, theatrical productions of every hue, fire breathers and stiltmen, carnivals and circuses. There were tumblers, tightrope-walkers, rope-climbers and javelin riders. There were mystery plays and games of Spite, Jackdaw and Curlicue. A lake was frozen over especially for ice sports, and a sloping hillside was carved into an amphitheatre for the free enjoyment of all. Thousands attended, drawn as much by the delicious food on offer as for the entertainments themselves. Each year new recipes are devised solely for the duration of the Fair, never to be eaten again. I myself tasted roasted chestnuts dipped in honey marinade, sweet acorn dumplings, hot marzipan pillars and grebe fillets with lavender and ginger. While I tasted, my ears rang with a thousand merry sounds, from the trilling of pipes and the clamouring of horns to the booming of unattended drums. Choirs sing, traders cry and all the folk of the Fair raise such a hullabaloo that the trees for miles around vibrate in sympathy to it. It is a marvellous and most exotic fair.’

 
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