I: The Lady of the Lost
“Get lost!” she told me.
“I mean it. You need to get lost. Like, really lost. Out of your depth. You’re talking about feeling stuck – right? Well, this is what’s going to unstick you. If you’re sick of the same old same old… get away from it. Well away. You’re never going to find anything surprising under a rock, if you just keep turning the same rock over, again and again, right?”
Unbidden, an image of my ex-girlfriend appeared in my mind, and I felt myself rubbing my hand across my face, as if to wipe it away.
“Okay. You’re right… well, let’s say you’re right. I’m bored with everything. I’m bored with myself. I need to get ‘lost’ for everyone else’s sake, never mind my own…”
“That’s not what I’m saying…”
“Still. Let’s say I do want to get lost, for five minutes. How?”
“I don’t know. Stick a pin in a map. Spin a bottle, roll a dice, and go that many miles in that direction, and see what you find. You just need to do something you wouldn’t ever think of for yourself. Put yourself in the hands of the universe. Consult an oracle.”
I scoffed. “Ask a Tarot reader?”
“Whatever it takes. Do you want to finish this apple cake?”
“Yes. Please. And – I’ll think about it.”
But I already sort of knew. There was a place, between here and Wells – every time we went past it in the car, I felt a shiver. It was an opening into the woods. Except… it was eerie. There was something about the light between those trees; I always felt like it was an opening to somewhere else entirely. When I was a kid, my mum would drive us past it on the way to school, and I’d close my eyes two turns before to make sure I didn’t see it. If I did see it, I felt a pull, and that unnerved me.
I didn’t go that way often any more, but the feeling had never entirely left me.
That night, I couldn’t sleep, thinking of that opening in the woods. The next two nights, the same. On the fourth night, I drove out there. I remember my heart pounding as I parked the car, stepped out, walked up into the clearing. I couldn’t believe the power it still had over me. And what I found was –
- nothing. Absolutely nothing of note.
It was a normal little space. Normal ground, normal trees, normal pollutive junk left by other people who I guessed never thought it was magic in the first place. Disillusioned and dispirited, I decided to leave –
- and snapped to, with a jolt, in my bed.
I was cold, but wet with sweat. What? So the uninspiring copse was a banal dream? I had to get myself a drink of water. I went to work that morning trying to figure it out. Work gave me the same feelings as the clearing, the quotidian irritations that strew the day the same feelings as its abandoned crisp packets and beer cans. After a frustrating call with a client who seemed to understand our policies precisely in reverse, I sighed and went for a coffee break. The kettle was boiling when Maxine asked me how my day was going, and I was about to tell her fine, how was hers, when
- I woke, shivering on the woodland floor.
It was dark by now. The stars were out. Somehow the traffic seemed distant. How long had I been out here? How had I fallen asleep? I needed to get home. Unnerved, I made my way towards the slow, whooshing sound of the cars. But instead of clearing, the woods seemed to get thicker. Before long, I came up against a barrier of branches that was simply unpassable. I was completely puzzled by this – the woods had never looked all that thick as a whole, from the road.
I tried to seek a way round it, but every turn only took me deeper into the forest. There were more trees, with bigger roots, and wider branches, and all of them intertwined. Minutes became hours. Birdsong was comforting, at least. When did I last hear a car?
I squeezed between trunks, clambered over roots, crawled beneath brambles. I was in a world of woods. The air was thick with forest and civilisation seemed a distant memory at best, at worst a folly. Finally, exhausted of despair, I let go and stopped trying to find a way back, through or out. I sat on one great plain of wood, marvelling at its vast expanse, and closed my eyes.
How long did I remain that way? I fancied that I put down roots myself, that my hair grew thick as vines, and that I became the heart of a towering oak whose fruits would taste of my memories. That their pips were carried I knew not where, and seeded their own forests. I dreamed of generations of animals living and dying and rotting and giving their flesh up to new life again in turn.
My roots grew until they reached a lake of cool water, far beneath the world, and my branches grew until they touched clouds beyond clouds. And in the clouds above I found cool water, and in the water below my roots found leafy weeds. Then I was startled in the heart of the tree as I realised that they were one and the same – my branches grew up from below into my roots; my roots grew down from above and gripped my branches. I had become the tree that encircled the world.
And yet, when I heard a voice say,
“Well, I’ve seen some folks get lost in my time…” and I opened my eyes, it was as if no time had passed at all, and nothing had changed.
There was nobody there, and then footsteps padded around: from behind me, to in front. A diminutive woman in a forget-me-not purple smock and a simple maroon hat with a blue feather sticking out of it, which I confused for a moment with a glimpse of sky through the tangled branches above. She had labyrinths tattooed everywhere I could see, and her hair reminded me of my own in the reverie she’d just broken: leafy, green and growing.
At her side was a sand-coloured cat.
“You’re one of mine now,” the voice came again, but her lips didn’t move. “I am the Lady of the Lost.”
Only then did I realise it was the cat that was speaking. As I looked at her in wonder, she laughed.
“Maroon here is my animal companion. You thought it was the other way around, didn’t you? A lot of people your shape make that mistake.”
I spoke the first words that I had in a long time, then. “My – shape?”
This amused her even more.
“The ape shape, darling. Oh, don’t look so unsettled. It’s better than being the worm-form. But – don’t tell the worms that.”
I thought I heard a knock from the wood somewhere beneath me.
“I’m sorry,” I told the Lady of the Lost as her human companion looked on silently, “but do you know how I get home?”
“Everyone seems to ask me that, sooner or later, no matter how hard they were trying to get here.”
I must have looked pitiful, for she seemed to take pity on me.
“Follow the secret signs,” she said, and she looked up to Maroon – my gaze followed hers.
As I watched, Maroon took the blue feather from her cap, licked the end of it, and used it to draw a cupboard in the air. The Lady of the Lost padded up close to her and started to go around and around her legs, rubbing herself against them under her skirt.
Knock, knock, knock.
Maroon took off her hat and reached up to open the cupboard. She put the quill and the hat down in it.
Then she hiked up her skirt. Beneath it, her whole body was covered in an intricate maze of patterns. She pulled it up over her head, and put that in the cupboard too. Now she was completely naked.
“Where are you?” the Lady of the Lost asked me, between purrs. “Look closely. Maroon, play dead.” And Maroon lay flat on the wood. Now I saw that her skin, where it was not tattooed, was just the same colour as the pale wood. She could almost vanish against it, in the same way her feather might be lost against a patch of sky.
“Look closely,” the Lady said again, and my eyes were drawn inexorably to Maroon’s navel. It looked for all the world as if it was covered by a tiny man, crouching and looking down at the surface of her tummy. And, just above him, in letters so small that the whole phrase might have been a freckle, the words:
I suddenly had the terribly unnerving feeling that the crouching man was me. I had an irresistible urge to look up behind me – as I did, sure enough, the tiny man’s head seemed to turn too. But by then, I’d turned my own attention from him just enough to glimpse a gigantic figure looming above me, himself turning his gaze from mine, up past beyond the solid sky of branches towards…
Knock, knock, knock, knock, KNOCK
…a trapdoor opened beneath me.
II: The Troll Fae
I came to, with a start, aware of a presence above me. Not the daunting prospect of that giant ‘me’ – but something calmer – and at the same time, less human. Two black marbles of eyes looked down at me – below them, a nose so bulbous it obscured her mouth entirely. To either side, an ear as long as her face was wide, and pointed like a ceremonial spear. Above them, a pair of horns, curled in tight upon themselves like ancient fossils. And above those – a crescent moon.
The moon made me think I was outside again. Not just outdoors, but out of that interwoven canopy that blocked out the clouds and sun and everything beyond. As she bent to peer at me, though, the moon moved with her – it seemed fixed in the air, just inches above her head.
She said nothing. I said nothing. She just looked. Then I said, “owww”, because my senses were coming back, and she still just looked. Then I said, “Who are you?” and “Where am I?” and “What happened?” and who knows how many other questions, and she just kept peering, her fingers pressed pensively together.
This went on for some time. I drifted off again at some point – the moon had a soporific effect. When I woke again, she was still peering. “Aren’t you going to say anything?” I pleaded. Nothing.
Eventually I got up and started looking around the space. We were in what seemed to be a sort of bubble in the root – it was pretty much smooth, with very few edges or corners except where the surface of the space met what appeared to be her furniture. I was keen to get out of there and away from this silent stranger. As I poked around, though, she followed me, looking where I looked, and then looking back at me with that same unmoving expression.
Exasperated, I tried again: “Don’t you know the way out of here?” – but no response. Instead, she stuck a finger up that great bulging nose of hers. I looked away in disgust, and redoubled my efforts.
I don’t know how long this went on for, but it must have been days or weeks. There were times when she lit fat, dripping candles that seemed to burn without giving off smoke or heat. Their wax drippings had solidified over her bookcases and cabinets. At other times she would put them out – I thought there was no point going on seeking exits in the gloom, so I took these times to rest. Throughout, the crescent moon above her head went on putting out its glow. I found it strangely comforting.
I found her strangely comforting, too. There was an awful moment when – after two rounds of searching by candlelight, and then putting them out; which was how I measured time – I realised I was starving. I confess with no small degree of shame that I started looking at the ‘troll’, as I’d determined to think of her, hungrily. Wasn’t there something food-y about her, after all? Or was I, in my emptiness, starting to see food in everything?
That question was answered when I started to wonder if there might be nutritional value in the candle wax. Candles were sometimes made of animal fat, right? Didn’t they have to be, at least, organic? And didn’t I read about how you could eat beeswax, once, in some far distant time and place? I remember one fat, amber drop was making its way down a miniature gorge, looking for all the world like honey, and I couldn’t resist reaching out for it, imagining its warm sugary taste on my tongue…
…when she slapped my hand away.
It was the first real interaction we’d had, aside from the constant peering. I looked at her, aghast. “I need to eat something!” I exclaimed. “I don’t know how long it’s been! Aren’t you hungry too?”
Desperate, I sank to my knees and scrabbled at her moss-green robe. The shells she wore rattled as I humiliated myself begging, and she remained utterly placid. “Please help me,” I implored.
I didn’t say: “If I don’t find some food eventually, you might be it.”
I looked up at her, already – and too soon – wondering how much meat might sit on her bones behind the layers of her one-piece dress and the thick drape of hair that cascaded from her shoulders like a cloak. What kind of a creature was she? She might not be made of meat at all. The way that moon moved, like magic… was I really contemplating sating my hunger with the body of some kind of goddess?! As this horror occurred to me, so did the deeper one – that this was shameful regardless.
I collapsed further onto the floor of our oaken bubble, broken. “But please,” I whimpered. “I need something.”
And something nudged at me. It was one of those fingers that she usually kept pressed together, contemplatively. I looked up, weary of that gaze of hers that somehow managed to be at once docile and curious.
As I watched, she pulled a curtain of her hair around in front of herself, then – I couldn’t quite see what was happening behind it – she seemed to rummage somewhere in her robes for what was then revealed.
A cake! Heavens above – with the beautiful, sweet scent of a dozen-and-one bakeries at once – it was a glorious, weighty, glittering, iridescent, brown-and-purple lump of cake – and she handed it to me before pulling out another.
I tore a hunk off and shoved it in so fast, it muffled my own ‘thank you’. My mouth flooded with a bewilderingly familiar taste – it was… it was…
it was exactly like the apple cake from the cafe. I couldn’t fathom it. How had that cake got here, wherever this was? How did she have something that tasted so like it? But, in any case, it had never tasted so good, and except for a brief moment, I didn’t think more on it. I just scoffed, full of gratitude. The troll sat down next to me with her own piece and ate too. I still couldn’t make out her mouth, but I could hear her making strange chittering noises as she enjoyed it with me. I think she might have been laughing at me. Despite her complete lack of communication, never for a moment did I think she missed what I was thinking.
When I realised that the miniature waxen glaciers and waterfalls were covering over books and manuscripts, I became convinced that one of them must contain the key to my escape – a map, or guidance – I didn’t know what – but surely something? I pulled out what I could and pored over them. The troll looked too. “Can you read this?” I asked her. It was all in an alphabet that meant nothing to me. She looked sympathetic, but was no help at all.
Every couple of ‘days’, she’d bring out some more hunks of that gorgeous cake from somewhere in the folds of her dress. They gave me a hell of a kick of energy, and it lasted me just about until the next time. She was definitely some kind of goddess, I concluded. How else did she get this stuff, fresh, from out of nowhere? But I started to notice something else.
Every time we ate, there seemed to be less room in the wooden cave afterwards. The first time there wasn’t much difference, but the second time I was pretty sure I wasn’t imagining it, and thereafter I knew I was seeing it happen: she was growing. I got the energy boost, and she got bigger. It worried me. Were we going to run out of air? First of all she was getting in the way of the bookcases, and then whole sections of the wall were inaccessible. But I could hardly complain, could I? After all, this was her food – her sharing it with me was the only thing keeping me going.
On the last day, we reached a point where she was taking up most of our bubble. In fact, we weren’t just rubbing against each other – the space was almost full of the troll, and I was standing on her arm as I made an umpteenth sweep of the wooden wall for crevices. All of that furniture was lost somewhere beneath her. Up here, there were more of those weird candles, sitting in little alcoves in the wood. They gave us light without seeming to scorch it. I had begun to hope that with one more tasty bun, she would be big enough that I would be able to reach the trapdoor I’d fallen in through – but as yet, I hadn’t found it. Then finally, she tugged out two more buns. They’d been getting bigger with her, and this one was bigger than my head. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. It tasted of home, but better than home – it was like it already tasted of coming home when I was home, and now it tasted of that feeling to the power of itself. By the time I was halfway through it, she was another factor more gigantic, and I was sitting on her bosom. I looked up, wondering if I might catch sight of the trapdoor – and sure enough, there was a thin dark outline in the wood, that had to be the edge of it.
She swallowed her last morsel of cake. She expanded just one more degree. And her bumped against the trapdoor, completely obscuring it.
I could have wept. I tried to scramble up her giant face, without dignity, using one of her giant plaits as a rope. I stood on her scalp, the moon hovering next to me, just inches away from the roof of the arboreal space. I couldn’t get to the trapdoor. I couldn’t even see it. My feet were tangled in her hair. I glanced around, and was overwhelmed by the depth of the fall beneath me. I must have fainted. Everything went grey.
When I came to this time, I was back on the bosom of the troll. None of the aches I had when I hit the cave floor – her expansive chest must have cushioned my fall. She’d extinguished the last few candles that remained around us again, and was sleeping. Snoring.
My god was she snoring.
For the first time, I saw it. All this time…
The troll had now reached such a size that, from where I looked up at her, her nostrils were themselves like caverns. And what caverns they were. Not the moist tunnel of hairy flesh that you might be picturing – no, nothing like the monstrous little wormholes that you and I must snore through. Quite the opposite. Every part of them was covered in crystals, faintly glowing blue. They were more alluring than sapphires, more magical than opals. I could see the trapdoor now – her head had slumped to one side, and the crescent points of the moon pointed right to it – but I ignored it. A cool, sweet breeze emanated from the troll’s gargantuan nose. I climbed the platts again. I entered the cave of jewels.
III: Spiny Sister
The world seemed to breathe a sigh as I stepped into the cool blue cavern. I was so relieved about exiting the claustrophobic space I’d shared with the troll that I didn’t even consider trying to mark my way. This seemed like a whole other world – and what was back there for me, anyway? The same cramped wooden bubble; and even if I climbed out through the trapdoor, I guessed that would leave me just as lost as I’d been before I fell. If I was going to be lost, then it might as well be surrounded by beautiful jewels. I was enchanted by the way they seemed both to carry a light within them, and reflect each other’s.
Every iridescent facet of every blue crystal showed every iridescent facet of every other blue crystal in the tiny space on its shining surface. I went deeper, turned a corner. As I walked, countless copies of me walked along with me, reflected like sequins in the glittering surrounds. Another corner, deeper, and they all went with me. To begin with, I kind of enjoyed the illusion of their company – but soon, something was tugging uncomfortably at the edges of my awareness. It was not so much as if all these ‘companions’ were reflecting me – somehow, it felt more like they were copying me.
I walked – they walked. Most of them. Some seemed to lope, some to stalk, some to almost shimmy.
I stopped – they stopped. Most of them. A few seemed to keep walking a fraction of a second longer. Some of them might have walked right out of their reflective frames.
I turned to one side – and they turned to face me. Most of them. I looked closer.
It was just like a kind of advanced version of a hall of mirrors. This one was a bit fatter, because the surface was concave – in that one my legs were twice as long as my torso because of the way it rippled. ‘Hall of mirrors’, I thought.
That made me wonder if I could figure my way back out if I wanted to – and I tried turning back. To my surprise, I quickly came to a fork in the crystal corridors.. I took the right hand route because that was the side of the troll’s face I’d entered. As I approached what I took to have been my original way in, the tiny figures around me started to march in step, as the surfaces of the rocks appeared to smooth. Here my reflections looked much more normal. I guessed I was about to be in sight of the exit very soon – and no sooner had I had that thought, than I reached a dead end. I turned back around, and came to another fork. The first way I tried then was another dead end. The second led to a broad space which I hadn’t seen before, from which the crystal paths led out in five more different directions.
I was well and truly lost. I thought of a man long ago, who’d wanted to get lost. Was that me? It seemed to me he might have taken countless other paths since then, and become countless other men. Was I, who had taken these strange paths, any more ‘him’ than any one of them? Was I any less?
Now I had five more paths to choose from, as well as the one I’d just travelled down. Straight away, five more possibilities as to who I might become.
I stood at the mouth of each pathway, meditating on each of them, trying to divine some reason to pick one over another. Nothing seemed to distinguish one from the rest.
I don’t remember which path I took. By the time I’d decided, I couldn’t tell any of them apart from the route I’d taken to get there.
What I do remember is this:
The corridor went on and on. A tunnel to I knew-not-where; and the loping, stalking, bobbing, scurrying mannerisms of my reflections returned as I went further along. They intensified. After some time, it didn’t seem that my many reflections and I were in step at all. Sooner or later, I couldn’t resist looking again. And this time… this time there were differences. Not just stretched legs or squashed necks; not just noses swollen as if in a spoon. This time they were quite different.
I went right up close to the reflections. Even from where I began, I could see that things were not as they were. More than before had left the frame of the reflection altogether. Some stayed still as I approached, and some came faster towards me than I did towards them. The biggest differences were the most immediate. A few of them raised their hands to wave at me.
They all looked like me. Every one of them. But… some had slightly pointed ears. Some had little buds of horns. Some had grim expressions, some happy and eager. Many wore accessories I didn’t recognise – pins and pendants. A hat with a feather in it. They were only faint yet, but two or more had the beginnings of a fuzzy crescent shape hovering above their heads…
Alarmed, I ran – and my mirror-selves scattered in all directions, like a flock of startled birds. Some of them started running before me, on down the corridor, so it became as if I was following them. More of them followed me – and more yet went off in their own directions entirely, so that my cast of doubles was considerably reduced as I sprinted along, avoiding the jagged blue stalagmites as best I could.
As I ran, the variations of my doubles doubled and redoubled. They crowded in again, so that it became a stampede. As I glanced to my side, I saw centaurs and mermaids, pixies and giants. Every one with my face. But even that was growing wilder and wilder in its variations. Some, I barely recognised. Some, I didn’t recognise at all.
My breath became ragged – my movements, too. Why was I running? What was I running from? (All of my destinies? Why did I think I could run from any of them?) After all, I fancied I might like to be a centaur…
Just as this thought entered my mind, I felt a sharp pain. The inevitable had happened – I’d kicked a jutting crystal, and suddenly I was hurtling through the air. Half of reflections around me – which is to say, many thousands of them – grew wings and fins. But when I fell flat on the rock, just one looked back at me, humbly emblematic of the numberless variations of my form I had witnessed.
No wings here. No fins. No horns – no stallion’s hooves or giant’s frame. The sight of her calmed me, grounded me down from the frenetic pace of my many evolutions. She looked, more than anything, like a porcupine. But she really behaved like my reflection. When I moved, she moved. When I blinked, she blinked. And just as she reached up to smooth her hard spiky hair, I reached up to smooth my own – and I felt… I felt… I felt the stiff prickles of her spines.
I felt the stiff prickles of my spines.
IV: The Spell Singer
Now you know the story of how I became the Spiny Sister. But do you know what those spines are protecting? When I accepted that reflection as my own, I had to accept what was unseen, beneath the surface, too. Here is a little rhyme I made that reveals the secret of who I really am, behind the quills. If you want to make the rhyme yourself, you’ll need 12 ‘S’s, 4 ‘P’s, fourteen eyes, 8 ‘N’s, forewise; 8 ‘T’s, six double-yous, 10 ‘E’s, 8 ‘R’s and 10 ‘L’s:
Spiny Sister – Twiny Twister
Spily Sinter – Wily Winter
Spill Singer – Still Stinger
Spell Singer – Well Winger
Here are some spells I know now:
- The Spell of Shedding (How to get lost)
- The Spell of Being (How to be yourself)
- The Spell of Ariadne (How to escape a hall of halls of mirrors of mirrors just by )
- The Sky-Lantern Spell (How to hold the sun in your hand without burning, and also, without leaving fingerprints)
- The Spell of Smiling (How to smile honestly)
- The Spell of Carrying (How to move small things in the world)
- Spiny Sister Spell (How to be diminutive and brown with spines, and how to protect the Spell Singer)
- Spell of Spell Singer (How to be tall and soft and green of hair, and how to know all these other spells)
- The Spell of Flat Moss (How to wear autumn as a garment)
- The Spell of Leaves and Feathers (How to wear autumn as a garment, but another way)
- The Spell of Careful Coiffure (How to have a face like a wonderful comet)
- The Spell of Patience (How to wait very patiently for something to happen – when it happens, whether by accident or design, the spell of patience has succeeded)
- The Spell of Spelling (How to transmit a thought or an image directly from my mind to yours, by careful arrangement of ancient symbols)
These are just a small sample of the spells I know now. I wonder what magics you know? Try to think about it. And then try not to. Just try and do some magic without even thinking about it. Try and do it without trying. Maybe you can do it without even realising it’s magic. I know you know 14. The Spell of Reading (How to listen through your eyes)
V. The Numina
Every day, I grow a thousand years older; and every thousand years, I grow a day. In the evening of the thousand years, I become The Numina. Not ‘the Numen’, for it happens every day. The Numina – numerous in a single form, our many incarnations separated by thousand-year twenty-four-hour intervals.
I walk at the speed of dark.
You are the sun, reader, and I am the moon. Small and shifting. Reflecting your shining light.
Dreams and stray dogs are the same, lost, beautiful thing.
Look at my antlers (aren’t they cool?). Each tine is a small moment that changed the Universe.
We dine on the doings of the day.
See voices, smell colours, hear fragrances.
Every time you see a crescent moon, pluck it from the sky: you will earn yourself some fine trinkets.
Dusk is a balm. Rub it where you’re sore.
You can’t tell a sunset from a sunrise in a still picture. Only by watching and waiting.
I wake once a millennium, standing up to my chest in cool water: submerged in the day that’s done – breathing the air of the time that remains.
Sooner or later, everything is said that needs to be, and so very much more.
VI: The Silent One
I have a bunch of Tarot decks in London which I could have used for this, but when the call for submissions came up I was about to visit Glastonbury, which is awash with various oracle decks, so I thought I’d find one specifically for the purpose on the trip. The one I chose was Nadia Turner’s ‘Forest Fae’ from a shop appropriately called The Speaking Tree.
I’ve attached an image of the six cards I drew, which I share here with the permission of the artist, who kindly agreed to this without sight of my story.
In case any of the text on the cards isn’t clear, because they have partly informed the writing, they are:
Lady of the Lost: ‘Give to others; treasure life and all its magic’
The Troll Fae: ‘Follow the secret signs, as treasures can be found where you least expect them’
Spiny Sister: ‘Take pride in yourself’
The Spell Singer: ‘Cast spells of wonder and delight’
The Numina: ‘Seek inspiration in twilight wanderings’
The Silent One: ‘Watch the shifting shadows and be a caretaker of silence’
I turned three cards initially as per Matthew’s prompt, but while Spiny Sister’s message is a good one and she is very humbly beautiful, she didn’t have quite the drama I felt I wanted for my story. So I kept turning until I found ‘The Silent One’, who certainly does.
Once they were chosen, I found myself tumbling from one Fae to the next like Alice in Wonderland, if Alice was a bloke in his late forties who hasn’t dozed off by a riverbank in far too long.
Wes Viola is a pen name of Wes White (he/him). Wes is, among other things, an Elder Bard of his home town of Glastonbury; but now lives in London where he works for a public library service. As well as the inaugural issue of voidspace, he’s been published by Obsessed With Pipework, Bear Creek Gazette, Visual Verse, Eunoia Review, Dreich and Bog. You can explore more of his work at http://linktr.ee/wesviola.