Just trying something new. Tell me what you think.
Thomas was a man made for the sea. He had black hair that was turning gray in some places and white in others and a strong chin covered by a new beard which itself was covering old scars on either side of his face.
He clambered up a pile of rocks. The forest stretched in either direction. The sun would set in a couple of hours and the clouds were already beginning to take on a purple tinge.
Just as he was about to jump down, he saw, against the dark green, a traveller’s fire.
Within the hour, Thomas walked into a clearing at the entrance of the forest, where a barefoot woman with close cut hair sat staring into the fire and mumbling. She was pretty in the face, although her eyes were unsettling. Thomas stood looking at her for a while before he sat down across from her. He pulled out a hand carved pipe and began to fill it with tobacco from a small aluminum tube he kept on a string of leather around his neck. He held a twig to the fire and used it to light his pipe.
As he smoked he looked closely at the woman. She wore billowy cotton pants and a shirt made crudely of animal skins. She could have been very young, or in her thirties, or even forties with the lines around her eyes. She had freckles on her face and arms. Her arms were strong and her fingernails were worn down to nubs. Thomas tried to listen to what she was saying, but it seemed to be another language.
The sun was behind the trees by the time she roused from her trance.
Thomas, staring into the fire and smoking his pipe, had fallen into a reverie of his own and was startled when she broke into a cheerful soliloquy.
“Ah! So it’s you! The pirate! Well, I must say, I’ve never heard of a male guide before. It’s most peculiar, isn’t it? But then the other girls always say I’m an odd one. Do you think so? By the way, I hope we’re not going in at night! Surely the morning is better, isn’t it? I was born in the morning, you know. Well, of course you do!”
Thomas shook his head and grunted.
“Yes, I know!” she continued. “I’m afraid I’ve always been a voluble woman, or what some call a chatterbox, but I think it’s a vile thing to call a human, don’t you? Do you? I do. Now, certainly the morning is better, we’re agreed? I don’t know why Our Mother would send a man to guide me through the woods, but surely she wouldn’t ask us to go in at night?”
“I’ve no intention of going into that forest tonight,” said Thomas.
“Splendid!” said the woman. “We’ll go in the morning. That’s settled. So, why have you come early?”
“You’re a pagan, are you?” asked Thomas. “Off on a vision quest of some kind, is it?”
She looked confused.
“I’m no guide,” said Thomas. “I’m Thomas Bradley. I’m not a hallucination. Here.” He reached around the fire and pinched her leg. “See? Flesh and blood.”
She said, “Well that’s highly irregular! It’s downright indecent, as a matter of fact, and I daresay you’ve done me no kindness by sitting there like a sad stone all this time! Is this a joke of some kind, or prank or a test, perhaps? If you’re not my guide, then what are you doing here?”
“Just travelling,” said Thomas.
“Don’t you pirates do your travelling aboard ships?” she asked.
“You may not know this,” said Thomas, “but there are some places ships won’t go.”
“What are you doing in this country? No one travels here.”
“Shipwreck,” said Thomas. “A grand story really, a hell of a tale, and I’d love to tell it to you, but I’m hungry. Have you got anything to eat? What’s your name?”
“Mary Ann,” said Mary Ann. “I haven’t eaten in two days.”
“Part of the hallucinating thing,” said Thomas.
Mary Ann asked, “Have you been in this forest before?”
“No,” said Thomas.
“But certainly you’ve heard the stories?” asked Mary Ann.
“Oh, certainly,” said Thomas.
Mary Ann said, “Well but don’t you think you ought to go around? It’s only three days walk.”
“I figure it’s only a day’s walk through,” said Thomas.
“A pirate with no respect for the sacred, I understand that,” said Mary Ann, “but I’ve never heard of a pirate who wasn’t superstitious.”
Thomas said, “Aye, most sailors are superstitious.”
“And you? You’re not superstitious?”
Thomas laughed. “No, I don’t see the benefit in being superstitious. When God gets it in his head to toy with you he doesn’t send a black cat to warn you about it.”
“Well, that’s a bleak view, indeed,” said Mary Ann. “You are powerfully sad for a swashbuckler, I must say! I had always thought you lot were rather more gay. What are you travelling so far inland for?”
Thomas said, “I’m looking for a man. Edgar Hoffman. Do you know him?”
Mary Ann said she didn’t.
Thomas said, “He’s supposed to be in Shropshire. I’ll start looking for him there.”
“So,” said Mary Ann, “you’re a notorious pirate with no superstitions who happened to wash ashore on the wrong side of Night’s Forest and who also happened to stumble upon the sacred entrance? I don’t believe in coincidences at the best of times, Mr. Bradford.”
“Call me Thomas.” Thomas rubbed his stomach. “Well, what’s a guide supposed to do anyway?”
“Many things! Many things, yes, but the foremost is taking the pilgrim safely through the forest and into the realm beyond.”
Thomas nodded. “I don’t know about the realm beyond, but if there’s anything on the other side of this forest, I believe I can get you there, even if do lack the pleasure of being a figment of your imagination.” He stood up. “Do you eat animals? I see you wear them.”
“I won’t eat anything, as I am fasting before our divine quest,” said Mary Ann, “but, if you don’t mind, I could do with a nip of fresh blood.”
Thomas nodded and went out into the darkness beyond the fire.
He returned later with a headless possum and a handful of mushrooms. He sat down next to the fire and began working the animal onto a stick.
He asked Mary Ann, “These mushrooms poisonous?”
She inspected them. “No.”
“Are they good for eating?”
Mary Ann looked at Thomas for a second and then answered, “They’re okay.”
“Oh,” said Thomas. He tossed her a small flask.
“What’s this?” asked Mary Ann.
“Oh, it’s some of the blood,” said Thomas. “From our friend here.”
“Eesh! How perfectly horrid of you!” said Mary Ann, tossing it back.
Thomas caught it and looked at her.“What do you mean? You said you wanted blood.”
Mary Ann laughed. “Well, I was only joking! I’m not a vampire!”
“God damn it do you know how difficult it was to get that thing’s blood into this tiny opening?”
Mary Ann laughed.
“What the hell kind of joke is that?”
“Well, you’ll have to excuse me, Thomas,” said Mary Ann, “but when I tell someone I’d like a refreshing glass of blood, I expect them to disbelieve me.”
“Well, what do I know about witches?” asked Thomas. “For all I know you go about in the forests gnawing on whatever you can catch.”
“Heavens no!” said Mary Ann. “Is that what they say about us in town?”
“I’m sure I wouldn’t know what they say about you in town,” said Thomas.
Mary Ann said, “There are many different kinds of witches, you know. I don’t think it’s fair to assume we’re all the same. I mean, with you being a pirate, you must sympathize. I mean how can I believe you really are a pirate when you’ve no wooden leg, you’ve two good eyes, you’ve no parrot and you’ve failed to rape me on sight?”
Thomas nodded. “I’ve always been a bit of a procrastinator.”
Thomas held the stick over the fire and the meat cracked and popped and sizzled. The mushrooms slowly shrivelled and dripped with the fat from the animal.
“You ever eat one of these things?” asked Thomas.
“No,” said Mary Ann. “I don’t like them. They look odd, don’t they?”
“They are the devil’s rodents. But they aren’t rats, that much we can say.”
“Did you eat rats on the boat?”
“No,” said Thomas, “not me. But some of my men did. My mates. Yes they were a rat-eating bunch. Me I stick to hard tac and lime juice. Say, I never told you about that shipwreck.”
“I’m sure I don’t want to hear about that,” said Mary Ann.
“How do you know? Maybe there’s something in there that will tell you something important about yourself; something that will unlock the key to your existence, and consequently the existence of all things on the earth?” Thomas turned the animal over on the stick and cooked the other side. “You know, sometimes I get so hungry I eat animals half raw myself.”
“Say,” said Thomas, “are you one of those in touch with your body type witches? You know, having sex brings us closer to the earth, orgies and all of that? Say, can I even trust you about this mushroom? I bet it’s going to kill me and you’re going to have sex with my corpse.”
“First of all, there is to be no sex on a vision quest. And second, the last thing I would kill you for is to have sex with you.”
“Sounds good,” said Thomas. “Well, you don’t sound much different than most of the women I’ve ever met.”
“I suppose I’m not. I certainly don’t try to be.”
“Really?” said Thomas. “It seems like you take great pains to be. What are you going into this forest for, anyway? And you know I’m not going to guide you! Ha! I’ll probably end up trying to rape you, like every other man who goes into this forest would do if they happened upon a weaker female. Well, of course! When they could just chalk it up to the devil, who wouldn’t!”
“So, you’re saying that the evil in this forest is perpetrated by men?”
“Yes, of course! By normal people. You think spirits from the underworld are here, looking for innocent young women to go on vision quests? Ha! Do you think you’d be even attractive to a spirit from the underworld? If all you fear is losing your flower to a spirit of the underworld, well, you haven’t seen much of life, I’ll tell you that! And all the better for you! Definitely! Yes, all the better!”
“Your possum is burning, sir.”
“Ho ho!” laughed Thomas. “You are quite right.” He withdrew the stick from the fire and set the cooked meat on the grass. He pulled the stick from it. “Are you sure you won’t eat?”
“No,” said Mary Ann. “If I eat now, the whole quest is ruined.”
“To me it bears thinking about, the idea of starving yourself before going into a mystical forest. Any forest will seem mystical after not eating for three days.”
“Perhaps,” said Mary Ann, “but perhaps all forests really are mystical.”
“So then why do you have to go into this forest?”
“It’s the most mystical.”
“You are a strange witch, and a strange lady at that! But I already guessed you were strange, sitting out here mumbling to yourself in front of that fire.”
Thomas bit into the possum. “But what I didn’t realize, is that you were strange, even for a witch! Ha, most of you witches are all about the purity of the vision and connecting with the great mother and so on.” He chomped another bite of the possum, the grease running down his face. He tore at the carcass like a wild animal. He ate one of the mushrooms.
“My god!” he yelled.“These are magic mushrooms, aren’t they? You really are something.”
Mary Ann laughed. “Eat them! They will give you insight into navigating the forest.”
“Yes,” said Thomas. “Thank you, but I’ve had them before, and they weren’t to my taste.” He started to pull them off the stick and toss them aside.
“No, don’t waste them!” said Mary Ann, standing up. “Here, here, I’ll keep them for later.”
“Ugh.” Thomas groaned and held his stomach. “Either that possum was bad or that half a mushroom is already getting to me.”
“Probably the mushroom,” said Mary Ann. “It only takes a bite.”
“Damn you, you dusty old con artist,” said Thomas. “How old are you? Old as the hills I’d guess! At what age did you start growing those gray locks at such a prodigious pace. God’s wounds, I think that possum might’ve been off. What kind of diseases can you catch from possums anyway?”
“Oh, you’re just hallucinating now,” said Mary Ann.
“Is that a fact?” asked Thomas, and as he finished his question he slumped to the ground.