“Can I ask you something?” I said after a long silence.
“Only if I know the answer,” he replied, eyes closed. “I wouldn’t want to disappoint a woman of your stature.” A carpet of gray moss hung like a beard from his long face, and it wobbled when he spoke.
“That’s what I mean. You keep saying things like that. Like calling me ‘my lady.’”
He opened his eyes warily. “Yes?”
“Goodness me . . .” The question surprised him, and he shifted his prickly mass. Being a complete gnarl of growth, practically planted in place, the force caused several dry twigs to snap, like the crackle of old joints. “Well, aren’t you?”
“Aren’t I what?”
“A lady, of course.”
I opened my mouth to answer but stopped when I realized that answer was a lie. “I was,” I admitted. “Once. But that was a very long time ago. A very long time ago, indeed.”
“I miss the very long times ago,” he said, yawning. Even his tongue was a broad leaf. “You could really stretch out in them. The times today are so curt. Never bother to stick around, as if they’ve got some better place to be. Rude, if you ask me. Is that where you’re off to today, my lady? A very long time?”
“Oh, I hope not to be gone that long. I just planted my garden. If I’m not around to mind the strawberries, they’ll go to the birds.”
“Pesky things,” he said in a whisper. Then he looked around to see if anyone had heard. “But one must be polite, of course.”
“Of course,” I whispered back.
“Will you be taking the train today?”
“Train?” I looked across the dark undergrowth, hidden by the canopy overhead. It was identical in every direction. If the path I’d been following had ever continued, it had long since been swallowed by the forest. It was a very odd place to keep a train.
It seemed then that there wasn’t much reason to continue the ruse, and I dropped it. “I must be honest,” I said. “I seem to have lost some of my memories.”
“No!” He leaned back, aghast. “Truly?”
I nodded solemnly.
“That’s a terrible business. Terrible. Memories are like roots. They ought to stay where they’re planted.” He leaned closer like he wanted to tell me a secret. His face was as tall as my chest. “You know, when most people lose something, they wait until the last place to look before finding it, but I like to start there. Saves time, you see. And that’s important these days since there’s so much less of it than there used to be.”
“This is true. That’s a very good idea.”
“Thank you,” he said proudly. “But I can’t take credit for it. It was taught to me by a raven. Ravens are very clever, but this one was especially so.”
“It is very clever,” I said, “but I don’t think I have to worry about that. I’ve only ever kept my memories in one place.”
“Smart,” he said with a wink. “Very smart. Then you don’t have to worry where they’ve got off to. Have they escaped before?”
“Hmmm . . .” His leafy fingers stroked his mossy beard. “That’s good, but are you sure there’s nothing wrong with it?”
“The place you keep your memories. Perhaps it cracked.”
“Well, one can never be sure, but I’ve given it a good once-over, and it seems sound.”
“I see.” His face got dark. “Stolen then.”
“It certainly appears so.”
“You know,” he said thoughtfully, “I lost some memories once.”
“Did you find them?”
He opened his mouth to answer. Then he stopped and scowled at the heavy canopy over his head. “I don’t remember.”
I smiled. I couldn’t help it. “I suppose I shall have to keep looking.”
“Quite right. Best not to give up and all that. But you’d better hurry. The train is coming.”
I looked around again.
“Is . . .” He looked at me with one eye. “Is there a problem?”
“I’m sorry to be a bother,” I said, “but I seem to have lost the memory of where one catches the train.”
“Ah! On the platform, of course.”
“The platform.” I looked at the knee-high carpet of ferns. “And where is that?”
“Oh dear. I hope we haven’t lost that, too. I seem to recall it was around here somewhere.”
For several moments, we peered around the dim forest together.
“Ah!” His face lit suddenly. He lifted himself and pounded his heavy trunk on the ground so hard I nearly lost my footing. Several acorns fell and bounced on the ground. One hit my head.
“Get up, you lazy buggers!” he yelled. “The lady needs to know the way.”
Fireflies flickered among the ferns. They blinked like sleepy eyes as they drifted from their hiding places. They gathered into groups in the air, like dancing constellations, swirling as they coalesced. I watched in awe as the nearest formed a bright yellow ball inside an old iron street lamp, which, in the perpetual gloom, I had mistaken for the dead stump of a tree. The next group of fireflies lit the next lamp further down, and then the next, and the next, and so on in a straight line through the forest–remnant of some long-disappeared age.
“There,” he said with a nod. “That should keep the dark things at bay. But you must hurry.”
rough cut from the fifth and final course of my epic occult mystery, Feast of Shadows. Part One is available now.