There is a boy named Tui. He tells people it’s pronounced like Coo-ey, but with a tee, like the sound his grandmother makes every time she comes to the house. People often get it wrong, and so he has to correct them. Tui lives with his parents in a rickety old mansion. The fossilised house sits alone on the edge of town, away from the many rows of tidy, ordinary looking homes. Inside his house the corridors and floor are all wonky, a far cry from a Euclidean ideal. He knows what that is, it’s the kind of thing you learn in school; it’s to do with straight lines. The floorboards, they sag and bow and sometimes, when he’s feeling bored, Tui rolls marbles along the dark wooden boards. The little glass beads rise and dip and curve as they go rumbling along – and no one, absolutely no one can predict precisely what path they will take.
To the south of this large and ancient wooden construction is the small town of Imrae, with all its neatness, its quaint little shops and narrow curving roads. Northward lies the forest, with its mighty oaks and innumerable beech, with all of its mud and mystery. By north and south Tui is not thinking about the wild swinging of some magnetised needle, or the polarity of the Earth’s magnetic field, but it’s rather more simply his way of organising the world in his head. Tui has never owned a compass in all his short life; north and south are but up and down; the woods and the town.
On this autumnal afternoon young Tui wanders out into the woodlands growing by the house. He is on a mission, on the hunt for the perfect stick. His feet make swishing and crinkling sounds as he strides beneath the bare limbs of the trees, the odd leaf or two still clings to the jagged branches. It is like kicking up dry fire, every time he swings his legs; the way they throw up a turbulent storm of yellow and orange leaves. They billow around his legs, scattering and fluttering before coming to rest in eventual stillness upon the ground – until his next stride where once more the dance is done again.
Before long he stops playing with the leaves and focuses on his original task: the hunt for the stick. But not just any stick. Its properties are important. It must be long and straight, as well as strong and not at all knobbly. It can’t be wet and mouldy and mushy, like those awful times where he thinks he’s spotted it – the one – but hasn’t at all. As soon as he picks it up – the stick, that is – he can tell right away its wrong. The weight of the wooden sword is the first giveaway, for it feels far too light in his hands. Then, when he tests it, swinging it hard against a big thick tree trunk, it snaps pathetically and he’s filled with bitter disappointment.
Tui strikes out a path along his northward way, trudging along the golden highway cut between the boughs. Stick after stick is found and discarded; none are right.
So Tui keeps going deeper and deeper into the woods. The forest floor is a treasure trove of woodland trinkets. An acorn distracts him from his task. With strong little fingers he flicks the helmet from the nut, inspecting the smooth capsule that’s left. He lobs it with an overhand throw, sending it far off into the underbrush. It’ll grow a big tree, he thinks, over there somewhere. He can see it in his mind’s eye: the mightiest oak anyone has ever seen, planted by his own hand.
It’s suddenly brighter. Tui notices the change from the corners of his eyes, which are still downcast toward the ground, and the change in light causes him to look up. Just ahead he sees an enormous oak. It must be the king of the woods, he thinks, for right there in front of him is a trunk more than five Tui’s across, rising up like a great stone pillar. At its base is a nest of exposed roots.
The oak is growing in the centre of a large circular clearing, while all the other trees keep a respectful distance. Tui approaches with boyish reverence, treading lightly upon the leaf matter. The limbs of the tree are as bare as the others, but enormous, and all of the twisting branches cut a giant bowl shape from the bleached blue sky behind.
A raucous cry snatches Tui’s attention, bringing his sight to the black shape perched high up on a branch. The raven’s shiny feathers gleam with the reflected light of the low autumn sun. A black eye regards him warily from a head cocked to one side. The bird twitches, tilting its head round to the other side, and peers at him with its other eye. Can it see two different worlds, Tui wonders, one with each eye?
As Tui comes closer to the enormous tree, with the outermost tips of the wiry winding branches now stretching out above him, the bird screeches again and turns away, stepping from the bough and out into the open air, its beating wings lifting it up into the sky. The bird’s departs with a sound like the snapping of a flag in the wind.
Tui decides that this giant oak tree, in the centre of the clearing, is the perfect place to continue his hunt for the stick. He goes round and round the base of the oak, scouring the tree’s circumference. His search takes him both near and far from the trunk and he finds plenty of broken branches in the mud and in the swathes of dead leaves. A few serviceable examples turn up, and these are put to one side, left leaning against the mighty trunk, appearing little more than kindling next to its tremendous breadth. Stooping down, Tui grasps with one hand the end of a branch that is poking out from under a covering of brown and orange leaves. It doesn’t look much, but something makes him pull.
Lifting the branch takes more effort than he expects, and it comes slowly, bringing along with it great mounds of sodden leaf matter. Once he shakes the detritus free, the limb hovers in the air before him, an extension of his own arm; Tui’s Excalibur.
Swish; Tui hears the sprig has its own breath as he uses it so sever the air before him. The tiredness in his back vanishes. The fading warmth of the sun fills him with renewed energy. This is the one, he thinks. Tui has found it, but there is one final test that still remains.
The stick is swung hard against the wide trunk of the oak. It impacts with a clacking sound and the force reverberates along Tui’s arm, straining his wrist and dazing him. Against all odds it has remained undamaged. Triumphant, Tui turns swiftly round. To his back the giant oak, and ahead of him … ahead of him is the edge of the clearing. A wall of tall, dense forest. He squints, searching for familiar features. No, he decides, that’s not the way. And he starts round the tree, keeping his sight turned outward, seeking path to lead him south, to lead him home.
After making one complete round Tui ends up right back where he started. Maybe that is the way I came in. He scrunches his face up in concentration, and then takes a few hesitating steps forward. Two tall trees frame what looks as though it could be the path. The force of conviction in Tui grows as he approaches, climaxing and then dropping off suddenly on the cusp of the clearing. He hovers there, on the edge, sensing a tangible barrier. The atmosphere in the glade behind him is light and airy; a tingling at his back. Ahead the air feels thick and heady, almost like a winters evening in by the fire, but with a twinge of creeping darkness. No, he changes his mind suddenly, this can’t be the way.
I have my stick, or so he tells himself, and it brings him courage of a sort. He forces a look of confidence on his face. All directions appear the same. The sun has dipped; no longer does its light stream down from the sky, but instead comes washing slowly over the tree tops and trickles down into the clearing. Tui is getting hungry.
He grips the stick tightly, swings it through the air, violently.
‘Aha,’ he says out loud.
There it is, he thinks.
A strangely shaped tree with a distinctive S bend in the trunk. Next to this tree Tui steps through and into the waiting wood, onto what he believes to be the path. The forest has a weight of silence. His feet make a steady crish, crish, crish sound as he passes. The occasional creak and groan only strengthens the feeling of quietude, as the gentle noise cuts easily, slicing through the musty air. The forest begins to glow as sunset colours descend, orange and pink. In the soft hazy light the world begins to melt. Tui continues; he has no choice. This must be the way, is all he can say, to himself; in his mind. The melting forest is no place for words to be spoken – not aloud.
The colours fade. But instead of solidifying into its new shape, the forest becomes yet more uncertain. Up above Tui can see between the black streaks that zigzag there, a few faint stars flicker on the dome of the sky. The large gibbous moon rises, illuminating the ground. All that can be seen are varying shades of grey; shapes edged in silver light. Surely I am nearly there. Doubt begins to crawl. Not far now.
Another sensation grips him, tight and unflinching as the rusty old vice in the tool shed it holds him. The feeling is as old as time itself, I am being watched. Hairs prickle. All he can do is clutch the stick ever tighter, to cling to it.
Ghostly shapes shimmer in his peripheral vision. They are no more than the shapes of things in the moon bathed darkness. He does not look around. He cannot.
The sensation builds until the hotness is too much too bear and he swings round in a gasp. Walls of trees bear away into obscurity. There is nothing. Don’t be scared of the dark, he intones like a mantra of the night. Find a way back, that’s all. Tui swings his stick in front of him; reassuring. So long as I keep walking I will come out somewhere, eventually. And on he goes, slipping deeper into the woods.
It isn’t long before the same instinct fills him again, a primal certainty of some presence behind him. He can hear something. It’s more of a feeling than a vibration in his ears. Tui’s heart beats, his tummy tightens and he can feel the warmth of his flushing face in the pitch blackness.
He stops dead beat and bends all his senses toward that invisible realm that exists behind the vision, straining to detect something…
Tui stands there for a moment frozen, willing to turn around and look. He can’t do it. Even in the cold night air, sweat begins to seep from his pores. He curses his heart for thudding such a din. There is nothing to hear except the pounding in his chest and aching sigh wind passing through trees. Don’t be stupid, there’s nothing there, and so he turns. And on turning he finds a dark shadow gliding toward him in the night. It grows quickly in size as it approaches until as tall as him, then taller. It stops no more than a few paces back. The sweat that had formed on Tui’s body feels suddenly frozen solid, and it is ice, not blood, flowing beneath the thin pale flesh of his exposed arms.
An enormous beast looms before him. The only colour to be seen comes from the two yellow eyes.
‘Are you lost?’ the beast asks.
Tui squeezes the stick in his fist. He feels the blood straining away from the hand. It’s going to kill me.
The creature takes one slow stalking movement toward him; its muzzle bent low, leaning forward from its arching body, sleek and arrow like. Tui can smell it now. The musk is intoxicating; it fills his nostrils and penetrates his mind, filling it with fog.
‘What,’ it asks, the words a slow rolling rumble uttered from the animal’s throat, ‘is a boy doing here?’
Tui stands motionless, muscles pulling tendons taught. The beast bows its head slowly, coming closer to him. It shakes itself, the soft downy fur wavering silently in the night.
‘This is no place for boys,’ it growls. ‘Come with me; I could lead you out of the woods.’
Tui hears the words. No, he thinks. One lonely word hollow in his head. But he’s lost. He doesn’t know the way. I don’t have a choice. The beast turns and Tui watches it transmogrify, the black shape curling and shifting – a shadow stirring in the moonlight. One hesitant shoed foot moves to follow the naked paws; slow and clumsy, soft and light. They deviate from that straight Euclidean path Tui had struck, and meander off into the irregular winding underbrush. The boy’s mind had been the guide before, but now it is instinct they follow: a beast’s sense, innate and illogical. Low hanging branches spring unexpectedly from either side, catching on his clothing and pulling at his hair as though pulling him back. He ducks down, diving beneath limbs, following the beast on its weaving path. They move in and out of beams of moonlight; threads intertwining the forest, the stitching that holds the night time realm together.
Onwards they stalk. Tui’s initial fear subsides as his concentration fades, his movements become somnambulant. The precious stick is still held close, swinging by his side.
Total absorption in the task of moving is broken like a spell as Tui steps out into an open clearing, roughly circular in shape, but this one with no giant oak in the centre. The ground is covered in a thin layer of mossy grass. Moonlight bathes the area in the reflected light of the sun. By its glow Tui watches the great creature slink to the middle of the glade. It sits and waits for him.
It is hesitatingly that Tui approaches, uncertain as to why they have stopped. The forest stretches on indefinitely, infinitely in all directions; they are no nearer to the edge, no nearer to home. Why have we stopped here? he asks himself again. The beast sits tall and proud. It is statuesque, a sculpture of twilight. It blinks. The yellow eyes vanish for an instant, leaving nothing but a black shape. And then the orbs reappear, regarding Tui’s once again.
‘You came here,’ the beast growls again. ‘Did you not?’
It feels almost accusatory, and in a flash Tui almost opens his mouth. I didn’t mean – I was lost. Catching himself he holds firm, certain that to speak now would be the death of him.
‘And why did you come?’
In the low light Tui’s peripheral vision detects what would have been missed were he staring directly at it. Around the edge of the glade, just within the protective veil of the tree cover, are pairs of eyes: amber, gold, green, grey. Like subtle fairy lights they are strung around the edge of the clearing. A primal fear grips him. He is filled with terrible lightness. Tui holds the stick up, holding it in his right hand at a slight angle. The stick hangs there, warding against the beast.
‘What is this you’re holding?’ the beast says, its voice is deep and rumbling.
Its great muzzle comes close, and takes three deep inhalations. Sniff … sniff … sniff. Three sharp sounds like the tearing of paper.
‘A stick?’ The beast takes a step back, tilting its head slightly.
The beast leans forward, opening its jaws. Behind peeled lips rows of white teeth glow incandescent in the moonlight. Tui can feel the dampness and the heat of the breath. He can smell the sweet, rich scent of it. His hand trembles ever so slightly, the stick barely wavering in the air before him. Even in the dark, by the white light of the moon he can see inside the beast’s mouth, lustrous and pink.
The great maw closes, slowly, ever so gradually around the perfect stick. At first it merely takes the weight of it from Tui’s hand and arm. A slight trickle of drool drips onto the wood, slick and pearly. Suddenly the stick is wrenched from his grip as the powerful jaws close. The cracking sound is thunderous.
Silence comes rushing back fill to fill a vacuum, swallowing up his shattered dreams. Splintered pieces of branch fall by his feet. He can see the shards as dark shapes on the ground; he remembers how it had felt to hold it. No good to him now.
It had been his defence, what he had clung to in the dark. Now bereft Tui feels vertiginous, he is the raven as it steps off the branch of the great oak; he is that instant of weightlessness before wings lift skyward. But Tui has no wings.
The beast’s mouth is close now, ever so close. Tui’s nostrils are clogged with a stench of decay. Clinging between the teeth are the ripe remains of whatever the beast had last feast upon. He wants to be sick, but not because of the smell.
Then he is seized by a different feeling, one he has never felt before. It feels as if inside him something is at snapping point, like he is drowning in mud.
Tui reaches out in a sudden burst of movement and grabs the creature by the soft flesh around its muzzle and pulls, snapping whatever was inside him. It is a flood of power to act he feels, a sudden dizzying feeling of control. The beast yelps. Caught by surprise, off guard, it stumbles to the ground following the inexorable pull of unexpected pain. Tui holds the beast there, fear preventing him from letting go.
All around him he senses the movement. The other beasts step out into the clearing; they materialise from the threshold between the moonlit clearing and the forest. Dark shapes are coming closer, arched aggressively. They will rip me to shreds. A true sensation of terror grips him, deeper and more all-consuming than he has never experienced. He watches his own death, manifested as the creeping shadows crawl toward him; inexorable and unstoppable.
Tui tightens his grip on the beast that is still held beneath him. Out of fear or out of desperation or of instinct, clinging on for life. The beast utters a quiet whimpering sound. At the noise the shades around him stop in their tracks. Slowly, one by one, they crouch down, becoming smaller, less threatening. They lower their tails, sinking into the fresh blanket of moon plated grass. They will not lead me from the woods, he knows. But he can feel the change; for good or for worse, he knows he is no longer at their mercy.
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