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Twisted vines wrap a tall black iron gate. In the street nearby a carriage with a horse and driver waits to take pilgrims on tours of the old forest. The driver looks ancient and weary in his tattered black livery coat. He holds his decapitated head in his lap. His cobwebbed vehicle appears not to have moved in centuries. The ashen draft horse harnessed to the contraption stands stiff as if stuffed with cotton batting. When he sees us he picks up his head and slots it on his shoulders.
—Welcome! May I interest you two lovebirds in a romantic carriage ride through the park? Sit back and relax in my stylish coach while we take you on a tour of the park’s most salient attractions.
—Suit yourself. But be wary. The park is dangerous at night. Stick together <wink> and never leave the path.
The driver raises his whip and lets it fall with a crack over the dead horse’s head.
—What kind of sword is that?
—This sword possesses epic intelligence with id and ego to match. Like myself it’s of chaotic neutral alignment.
—So it swings around a fulcrum of unrepentant self-satisfaction to and away from chaotic evil and chaotic good respectively?
—Yes. It’s lesser powers are ‘charm person’, ‘hold person’, and ‘minor illusion’. It’s greater powers, ‘dimensional anchor,’ ‘deeper darkness,’ and ‘cause fear.’ It’s dedicated power is ‘greater shout.’
—Living swords always have a special purpose. Mine was imbued with its forger’s intent to eradicate errant spell-casters, especially those of lawful good alignment like yourself. It’s unpredictable and difficult to control to say the least, with a strong tendency to propel its wielder without warning into frenzied melee.
—How did you procure this temperamental artifact?
—I killed the original owner.
—Does the sword have a name?
—Bitch Cleaver. What about the staff you always carry?
—It’s an old stick I picked up somewhere.
As we pass through the iron gate, Ba taps me on the shoulder with his weapon, but the sword jerks back, vibrating like a struck gong in his hands.
—I keep trying to pick a fight with a jellyfish but I always get stung.
—That’ll learn you. What’re you doing now?
—Scanning your aura. I feel a purple shadow, a bruise on a deep ethereal layer.
—Stop probing me.
—Magic users are known for being frail in contrast to their reality-bending powers.
—You’ll notice I’m wearing bearskin armor for this outing.
—Ah. Very nice. I’m looking forward to seeing you go all berserk on whatever gets in our way.
I follow Ba along the edge of a mist-filled chasm. Framed in the waxing moon his fuzzy armor gives him an animal outline that makes me think of Wolfie.
Next to a picturesque stone bridge spanning a stream draining into a stagnant mere–we stop on a grassy knoll for a picnic. Luminescent slime scums the mere water like fluorescent green paint. I unpack a blanket from my satchel and spread it on the grass. Ba tucks into a BLT.
—Ba, you represent the Wolfie archetype in my life. My old friend was even more outlandish than you. A bad drunk, a relentless provocateur, a free-spirited wanderer with writerly ambitions.
—Another of your burnt bridges?
—Wolfie and I weren’t close. He had this utter vulnerability and openness. I was one of many lives he he passed thru.
—How did he die?
—He was living in an Institution for animals waiting to be released back into the wild. He broke out and traveled west. On the west coast he fell into a coma. His great heart stopped three days later.
—He lived more in his twenty-nine years than most people do in twenty-nine lifetimes.
—You’re not worried about what the medium said about your imminent demise are you?
The setting sun dwindles over the Necropolis. Shadows stretch to infinite length and melt into singular darkness. The night forest soundtrack of chirping insects, rustling underbrush, and trees sighing in the breeze muffles the city’s screams, revving engines, blaring horns. Lines of flickering lamp posts converge along the path. Somewhere off in the forest drumming throbs with slow unnerving insistence.
—These branching cobblestone ways were originally built for pleasure strolls and scenic walking tours.
—I’d like to get as far away from that drumming as possible.
Ba chooses the path most likely to lead away from the ominous syncopations. We ramble through disorienting forest corridors. The paths seem to branch off in every direction. But no matter which way we turn the communal drumming is louder.
—That drumming is getting on my nerves.
—The drumming represents something repugnant to your sensibilities. Is it because they’re not war drums, but the drums of sensuality?
—This is serious.
—I’m going to climb this tree. It looks tall enough to show us the edge of the bramble.
Ba boosts me into the tree. I wriggle up the trunk, needles poking, sappy branches gumming my hands. Finally, near the pointy top, illuminated by a waxing gibbous moon, iridescent purple moths flutter about in the mist. Disturbed by my intrusion they pepper me with rude questions, ask who the hell I think I am, laugh when I tell them, make fun of my platinum hair, say my crooked pointy nose looks like an arrowhead, call me a pretender, dare me to fuck with them, boast of their miraculous powers of metamorphosis, wonder why with all my energy and wherewithal I don’t transform into an adult with beautiful wings and fly off to the mating grounds. The purple emperors’ wings flash the eye of my predatory foe; the eye blinks coquettishly as the wings flit about my head. I shoo them away with sparks from my driftwood wand. The forest extends in all directions, a sea of trees between the the Necropolis’s sheer cliff walls.
Along a straight cobblestone avenue stand statues of great warriors of old. Plaques on their plinths describe in horrific detail how each of these famous fighters was brought low by the spirit of the forest, a malignant entity lurking somewhere deep in these woods.
—Kind of intimidating isn’t it? All these great men who made their big noise and bit it hard in the end?
Ba takes a deep puff off his American Spirit cigarette, smoke billowing ghost-like from his lips.
—You still think you’re gonna live forever?
Ba flicks his still glowing butt into the shadow at the base of a once-great man’s bust and rolls off like a tank down the promenade. The drumming grows louder. Despite his reckless machismo the unsettling groove has the Barbarian spooked. His boasting tapers off into ominous silence. I run after him.
—I’m sure it’s only a black-licorice gummy bear tribe’s drum-circle.
—If you say so.
It’s not like Ba to let something so benign rile him. He thinks if we find the drumming bears we’ll be compelled by the groove to drum too. It’s kind of weird how the drum sound is all around us now, like no matter where we turn we’ll always be in the center of the drum circle. Ba’s steel-and-flint eyes glint in the relative darkness. He sets off at a canter not at all his usual easygoing pace.
In his keenness to avoid the source of the dark wood’s polyrhythmic heartbeat, Ba pushes me from behind. We march across a bowed wooden bridge, past sleepy tulip trees and cut-leaf beech, along an acid-green lake, to a fountain where an angel statue weeps healing water into a basin. The two weary adventurers bathe and refresh themselves in the basin. The water heals them of the many wounds inflicted along the path.
The duo climb the first of many stairs and stroll along a promenade overhung with limbs of Sour Gum, Willow Oak, and Honeylocust. The wide avenue runs straight through a shadow world of dancing black flames and shiny watchful eyes that vanish when approached. Panic makes me have to pee. The ancient watery fear. But no public restrooms here. I leap the fence and plunge into tall wet grass. Ba follows me into the deeper shadow.
I reach a tall wire fence. Some kind of construction going on here. Freshly dug soil. A sign on the fence says, DANGER.
Fly re-buttoned, I turn around. Ba has wandered off, is hiding from me, or has disappeared. I call out for him a few times, but my voice sounds too huge. Afraid I’ll attract the demon of the forest, I whisper the Barbarian’s name. Ba Ba Ba. I retrace my steps back toward the path thinking he must have left me behind. Is this another of his pranks? He intended to abandon me all along. Yes. He hopes to make a man of me by stranding me in this evil woodland with no glasses, money, or map. But I’m not a man, I’m a little girl—alone in the dark.
I walk. It’s starting to get chilly and I didn’t bring a coat. Giant feral raccoons with golden eyes leap from garbage cans and stand on hind legs. I find the path again by my staff light and continue down the forest’s central meridian.
The drumming is all around now, polyrhythms in shifting time, synchronized with my skipping heartbeat. Hot and cold waves beat on my brow like an icy fireball is speeding toward me out of the sky. Cold sweat wets my armpits and my hands shake like they’re someone else’s. I’ve always been a live wire, though I’ve hidden it well, it comes out in the faces I make when I can’t stand still. Heightened sensibilities have guided me through life without much thought or reflection on my part. But I’m alone in the dark wood in a city in the middle of the night. And the big freak-out is coming that conjures bad things into being. Where is Ba and his mighty bastard sword? Some friend! Oh, blow your mighty ram’s horn, Ba. I probably shouldn’t have pissed on that freshly dug grave.
I’m looking for Ba but I can’t find him anywhere. I beat the shadow and made it past the black door without falling through, but I never got to see what was on the other side. Lot of pretty trees here. Osage Orange, Pin Oak, Camperdown Elm, Wisteria Pergola. All dead. Their names spring from seeds in my head. The trees grow at even-spaced intervals along the promenade. Gnarled branches of Quercus palustris reach with rough hands for my light. In a hollow cold stone open-air amphitheater ghosts enact a historical drama of shipwrecked exile and betrayal. The horror-show night sounds simmer down to a steadily percolating afterhours pulse, echoing every hollow tree, leaf, stone, and sodden clump of turf.
Where is Ba? I hope he’s alright. He’s probably riding the Blue Buffalo home right now, smiling like he’s done me a big favor by ditching me here. Ok. Keep it together. Don’t lose your shit again. Let’s see. This way is north by the cold tingle in my kidneys. So this way must must be south. The trees seem to point that way. All woods must end at last. Let’s go.
Off in the false twilight two silhouettes leisurely stroll one of the confused Escherian pathways. I follow the shapes through cracked staircases and flowerless gardens. These networks must have once been manicured by green-thumbed Gnome maintenance teams before the park was abandoned after the war. I keep an innocent distance between myself and the girls—if they’re really girls.
They lead me to a grassy hill-top guarded by an ancient Larch’s outspread limbs. The girls glance back at me, giggling and whispering. I catch up with them at the tree’s massive knob-encrusted trunk. Their eyes shine in my staff’s reflected light. Oddly beautiful girls. The short one with her wild strawberry head and leaf-green skirt and tunic has a fairy-like vibe. The other shifts restlessly between her long stork legs.
—Excuse me ladies, but do you know the way out of the forest?
The girls laugh and beckon me to follow. I shadow them into a crack in the tree’s great trunk. We pass in line through a woodgrained passageway. Forest sounds recede to hissing funneled silence behind. A glow ahead grows into a brightly lit street. Noisy yellow taxi cabs waiting for traffic lights to change, and tall glass hotels filled with heavenly scenes. Look, there’s Apple City Corporate Headquarters!
Our triangle emerges at the foot of a translucent tower, the bright afterimage of a golden age. The magnificent gold revolving door spins with a whoosh whoosh whoosh. I love revolving doors. They’re like all doors rolled into one, portals to far flung worlds; the combine harvester reaping, threshing, and winnowing in one sure mechanical scythe. This one spins too quickly for my taste.
A doorman in salmon livery stands stiffly before the building, his hand on the brass hook of a red-velvet rope. He sights me down the bridge of his nose; his eyes narrow to gun scopes. The girls walk up without hesitation and greet the doorman with easygoing familiarity. At the sight of them he lightens, unlatches the symbolic barricade, and motions the girls past with a pristine white-gloved hand. Strawberry-head and Stork-legs pause before the revolving door and look back at me with puppy eyes. When I make no move to join them, they shrug their shoulders, turn away, and pass through the door. It spins so fast its blades blur into one. Why can’t I follow them? Ba would follow. Ba would be the steaming hot beef in their juicy Reuben Sandwich. So hungry. Oh, Lard, where the hell are you Ba? Did the shadow of the forest suck you through the black door? Here I stand frozen before the door of possibility. Have I failed you, my seeing eye guide and faithful friend? Did I give up on you too soon? Should I go back into the forest and search for you? Why won’t you sound your barbaric yawp from the rooftop of the world?
J Pascutazz is a non-binary writer with Asperger’s syndrome. Raised in rural Ohio. Graduate of Bennington College. Resident of Brooklyn. Published by Miracle Monocle, Cleaver, Frigg, and others. A chapbook, ‘Lichen Land,’ was published by The Operating System in 2020. http://www.theoperatingsystem.org/os-open-access-community-publications-library/.