Saturday, 18 August 2012


The girl’s name was Dee Dee. Of course that wasn’t her real name – how could anyone have a name that ridiculous? – but it was what everyone called her, so that just about nobody remembered her real name anymore. She hated it, but nobody cared about what she hated.

Dee Dee lived in a big house in the posh part of the city on the fringe of the Great Forest that lies on the borders of Nowhere. Her family was one of the most prominent in that land. Her father was one of its most well-known businessmen, whose existence was concerned entirely with the doings of the stock markets of the world. Her mother was one of the most gracious and wonderful hostesses of society, and so exclusive were her parties that the crème de la crème vied for invites. Dee Dee was an only child, and her function was to look beautiful and consummate her mother’s life in the ultimate virtue of motherhood.

Dee Dee hated almost everything around her. She hated the big old house with its immense windows and billowing lace curtains and wall hangings, and she hated the deep-piled carpet which seemed to swallow her feet as she walked. She hated the ruthlessly manicured lawns, where not a wild flower was allowed to grow or a tree permitted to thrust a leaf forth in the wrong direction. She hated the high old stone walls that enclosed the property and shut her off from the outside world. She even hated the statue of the mermaid in the centre of the fountain out in front, whose breasts were decorously covered with her long flowing hair and who held in her hands a conch shell from which the water sprang. Most of all she hated being alone; for her parents were agreed that the company of the ordinary children of the town would spoil her, so they got for her tutors and subjected her to home schooling until she should be old enough to be sent to one of the exclusive schools in the mountains, where only the richest of the rich could afford to send their children.

So Dee Dee grew slowly older, in the slow crawl of childhood years, and steadily more embittered, but without outlet for her frustrations, her upbringing left to a succession of governesses and tutors, seeing her mother only as a racehorse might see its owner. And Dee Dee learned, even as a circus animal might learn, which acts to put on to charm and make happy the ringmaster of the circus, for the animal realises that only so long as it performs will the ringmaster be happy and leave it in peace in the little scrap of life that it had to itself. The years passed, slow as death, and she grew to a pretty little girl not far from adolescence, a girl who knew to endure loneliness and coldness, a girl who had learned that tears did not work, and who shared her private thoughts with her one real friend.

For there was just one thing in Dee Dee’s life that she did not hate, and that thing was, accordingly, hated by everyone in her family. That thing was her dog, by the name of Badur – a great hulking mass of bone and muscle and intelligent brain wrapped in black skin and wet nose, a dog so large that there were probably donkeys in the world that were smaller. Despite his gigantic size, Badur adored the girl, with whom he had grown up, regarded her as his equal and treated her accordingly. This was precisely why she loved him so much, for from the other inhabitants of the great house she only got sneering condescension or sneering servility.

Sometimes, Badur and Dee Dee would go for – carefully supervised, naturally – walks in the richer parts of the town, the dog on a leash, the girl on a leash too, and although nobody saw it, everyone knew that leash was there. They would walk in the huge park that lay on the border of the Great Forest, and the girl would pretend to like the artificial orderliness of the park, with its neat flower beds and concrete paths and metal benches for when you got tired, and the girl would dream of the forest.

“You’ve seen the Park,” her minders would tell her. “Why do you want to see the forest? It’s dirty and tangled and dangerous! Besides,” they would add, “the forest is enchanted, and therefore evil. Everyone knows these things.” And there would be the end of the discussion, for the minders cared little for her wishes and not at all for what she thought about things.

And so it happened that it was Dee Dee’s birthday, and her mother had, as a great honour, dressed her in the gift she (the mother) had herself presented – a dress of the palest pink, made of the softest, lightest material, with skirts that flounced around her knees and danced around her as she walked. She hated the dress at first sight, but thanked her mother politely, as expected of her. She would have thanked her mother politely even if the gift had pleased her immensely. Effusive displays of emotion were, in that house, reserved for society parties.

Dee Dee would have a party of her own in the evening, a party where the children of the best families of the town would be invited, a carefully controlled party with everyone on their best behaviour. Printed invitation cards had been sent with RSVP on them, and gifts were, even then, being packed and readied for the guests while professional decorators hung up decorations and a battalion of cooks began the process of preparing the delicately-flavoured dishes with their hundreds of esoteric ingredients. And in order to keep Dee Dee out of the way of all this activity, she was told to go for a walk in the park, and take Badur along with her.

“That dog is a nuisance,” her mother said. “We shall have to lock him up tonight during the party. Do you really have to have the ugly brute at all?”

“Yes, I do,” Dee Dee answered, but politely, as trained. She played the trained circus animal very well. It was a disguise that sat naturally on her shoulders after all these years. “I can’t live without him.”

“Your father and I,” the mother said, and the look in her eyes sent shivers of dismay down Dee Dee’s spine, “were saying only a day or two ago that the dog is too big and ferocious-looking and in any case you ought to have other interests.” She leaned towards Dee Dee, frowning. “We decided that we ought to get rid of it. It’s a nuisance to take care of and feed, and it has to be kept away from guests. And you’re getting too dependent on it anyway.”

“I need him,” Dee Dee repeated, still politely. “He’s been with me for as long as I can remember and I can’t do without him now.”

“We,” said her mother, the glint still in her eye, “will talk about that tomorrow.”

You and I, Badur,” said Dee Dee, kicking at a tiny pebble with the tip of one highly polished shoe, “are not wanted, not welcome. If I were a doll that could be made to walk and talk, they’d be happy with me. And as for you,” she hugged the big dog, and there were tears in her eyes, “they’ll never be able to do a thing to you, I promise.”

They were walking in the oldest part of the park, in the actual shadow of the Forest, along the wall that divided the Forest from the ruled and regulated world of men. Normally they would never have been allowed to come this far; but the regular minders were busy with birthday preparations, and they were in the charge of substitutes: a couple of servants, a young man and woman who were much too preoccupied with each other to care overmuch about the little girl and the huge black dog.

“But what can I do, really?” asked Dee Dee. “If I show them how much I love you, they’ll take you away just to spite me. If I pretend I don’t care, they’ll take you away anyway. What can I do?” Her shoes had filled with gravel, and she knelt to take the tiny stones out. In front of her, the path turned to the right at a stand of trees; and with a sudden chill of excitement she noticed that the wall beyond the trees, behind its screen of tangled bushes, was broken and crumbled.

Off to her right, beyond the bend in the path, she could hear her two minders murmuring to each other, in low tones, and she had already noticed that they had no eyes for anything but one another. She had no time to think and she did not pause to think; grabbing Badur by his padded black leather collar, she pulled him to the breach in the wall and through into the Forest.

The great trees rose all around her, like pillars, and the canopy of interlaced branches shut out most of the light. Within a few steps she had lost sight of the wall behind her, and a few more steps and there was no trace that anyone existed in the world but the great dog and she.

“They’ll come looking for us,” Dee Dee said, and urged the dog onwards. “It’s our chance to get away, Badur. We’ve to get as far as we can as fast as we can.”

The floor of the Forest was uneven and covered with low growth, but not so much as to impede the passage of the girl and the dog. There were no tracks at all; no way, once they had lost sight of the wall, of judging direction, and as the pair went further between the immense trunks of the trees, Dee Dee realised that there was a danger that they might circle, unknowing, back towards the wall and the park. By now even the oblivious pair who had been deputed to mind her must have realised that she was missing and had probably raised the alarm. There was nothing for it but to keep going, and, as she went, she kept peering all around for any trace of the wall around the park, or for pursuers, or for any other trace of men. There was nothing.

“Where shall we go, Badur?” she asked. The great dog wagged his tail slightly, but of course he couldn’t help her with that. “We can’t go on forever, so we have to find somewhere to go, somewhere we can be safe. There must be somewhere where they won’t order me around and where they won’t hurt you. We’ll find that place, and we shall be happy there, won’t we, Badur? But where is that place?”

After some time she began to get hungry. All she had on her was an illicit packet of dog biscuits for Badur which she had filched from the kitchen on her way out, and that was half-empty. Still, she took one out and tried it. It was very hard and the taste was strange. Badur smelt the biscuit, of course, and pushed his big wet nose into Dee Dee’s hand, so she had to give him one too, and then another, while she nibbled away at one more. Within a remarkably short time the packet was empty.

“What shall we do now?” she asked. “We have nothing to eat!”

There was, actually, a lot of food around her, if she had only known where to look: small herbs that could be eaten leaf and stem; another whose roots were fleshy like a potato and could be dug out and consumed, and, if she had turned over logs and stones, there were small snails and grubs which might have looked loathsome but could provide Badur, at least, nutrition in an emergency. But she was a city girl who had never been in the forest, and she did not know.

By the time evening arrived, the hunger pangs had virtually forced her to decide to turn back, and bargain with her parents: her continued presence and further good behaviour for Badur to stay with her. But she was so lost that she found she had not the slightest idea where the city lay. Badur and she were in the Forest, lost as they could be.

In the last light of the evening, filtered through the boughs of the trees, she found them: clumps of thick fleshy mushrooms growing at the base of a rotting tree. In the uncertain light they looked brownish-pink. She vaguely remembered that mushrooms were edible: the cook sometimes produced them, curried, at the dinner table. These were far from curried, but she decided they’d have to do. She broke off one and sniffed at it. The underside, with its rows of gills, was a fish-belly white and it smelt faintly earthy. She nibbled at it cautiously. It tasted slightly sweetish, more a flavour than a taste, but it seemed edible and it was moist, slaking a little of the thirst she had. So she ate it all and after that as many more as she could find. She offered a few to Badur as well, but the dog refused to touch them. By the time she had swallowed the last, the night had closed in, and she and Badur snuggled together at the foot of a tall tree.

After a time, Dee Dee began to dream. She was awake, but she was dreaming, and she was aware that she was awake and was dreaming.

She thought that she was sitting under the tree, as she was sitting in the dark, with one arm around Badur; but in front of her danced multiple coloured lights, in yellows and purples and blues of many hues, lights that came together in intricate and jewelled patterns that were very lovely. And the lights sang, a high wordless tune, but so sweet that she wondered how the forest could continue to sleep at it.

More coloured lights gathered, red and green joining the yellow and blue, and they came together in a wheel, coruscating; the spokes merged and separated and merged in new patterns, and the play of colours was so clever and pretty that she laughed aloud. The lights danced together and little by little she could see faces in them, and places, towns and cities and forests and laughing people. She saw seas with ships on them, tiny as seeds, seas in which great silver fish splashed and leaped for joy, and her heart leaped for joy with them. And, little by little, the lights blurred and coalesced into a great whirlpool before her eyes, a whirlpool that drew her in, and she plunged into it and she was part of the light, it was inside her and she was inside it, and the light was everywhere.

When Dee Dee opened her eyes, the first thing she saw was a little blue man staring into her face.

At first she thought she was dreaming; that the effects of the mushrooms she had consumed, psychedelic lights and all, still lingered. It was only the sensation of a small pebble digging into a cheek and the pressure of urine in her bladder that persuaded her that she was awake, and if she was awake then the man was probably real. For some time she lay still and watched the man, and he watched her right back.

The man was small. Very small, indeed; Dee Dee thought he would hardly come up to her knee. His skin bulged over his thick muscles, and he was sky-blue, except for the black topknot of hair which grew from his scalp. His nose was tiny, his chin broad, and immense teeth stuck out of his mouth, like tusks. He wore a kind of tunic of leather, and boots of the same material. In one hand he held a spiked staff. He looked horrible.

As Dee Dee watched, the little man stepped even closer. His tiny eyes glared at her, and he reached out to touch her with one of his splay-fingered hands. Dee Dee became convinced then of something: the man did not know that she could see him. He thought himself quite invisible.

Dee Dee waited until he was so close that she could feel her breath deflecting off him, and then reached out with one hand and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. “Got you,” she said, sitting up.

The little man was so astonished that for a moment he was almost paralysed. The spiked staff dropped from his hand, and Dee Dee kicked it away as far as she could. She held the man up with one hand – he was not as heavy as he looked – and with the other grasped his booted legs together so he could not kick. “Got you,” she said again.

“Let me go,” the man grunted. He tried to turn his head and bite at her with his huge tusks, but his neck was too thick to turn his head very far. “You let me go.”

“Who are you?” Only now did the strangeness of the situation come home to Dee Dee. She finally became aware that whatever she held in her hand was no ordinary manner of being. For one thing, she had never heard of such a creature before; and for another, Badur was standing by her side watching her curiously, quite obviously unable to understand what she was doing and unaware of the little man in her hands.

“Granchu,” the little man said. “I’m Granchu. Now you let me go.”

“Not so fast,” she told him. “Who are you, and why were you watching me?”

“Told you, I’m Granchu.” The little man gave an impatient wriggle. “I’m one of the Old Ones. Anything more you’d like to know?”

“There’s plenty I’d like to know.” Dee Dee shook him a little. “Why were you watching me?”

“Why did you come to the Forest? You’re an intruder. You go back to your world, and leave us alone, that’s all there is to it. Besides,” he said, “how did you see me anyway?”

Dee Dee looked at him. He was even uglier than he had first seemed, but there was something about him – some feature of his appearance, perhaps – that gave him a curious dignity. “I don’t know,” she told him. “Somehow or other, I just can.”

“Put me down,” the little man named Granchu said. “I promise I won’t try to run away.”

“See that you don’t, or I’ll set my dog on you,” Dee Dee told him, and put him down carefully on the ground. Badur still didn’t react, but the little man looked up at the great black beast with some trepidation. “Now you tell me where I am.”

“You’re here – in the Forest – of course. Where do you want to go?”

“I want to go...” the word ‘home’ rose to Dee Dee’s lips and froze there, unuttered. “I want to go away,” she said, “with Badur.” She patted the dog’s shoulder, and he sniffed at her, wondering to whom she was speaking. “I want to go very far away, where my parents and the others will never find me.”

“Are you running away from your parents? Why don’t you go back to them?”

“They want to take Badur away from me. They don’t really think of me as someone alive.” The bitter words came flowing out of her. “All they think of is how much money they can earn and what parties they can throw and all I am is some kind of, you know, ornament. Like a thing they bring back from some tourist trip abroad and put on display. I’m supposed to be proof of what good parents they are.” She mimicked her mother’s falsetto tone. “Dee Dee, I’m ashamed to call you my daughter if you behave like that!” 

“I see,” said the little blue man. “So you don’t intend to go back to them?”

“No,” said Dee Dee vehemently, “I am never, ever, going back to them.” And, when she said this, she knew that she meant it more than she had ever meant anything before, and she knew that she would not have returned the previous evening even if she had known the way back.

“Well,” said Granchu, “you can’t stay in the Forest forever. It’s not as though I’d object, mind you, but...” he waved the hand that had held the spiked staff, “...they won’t like it.”

“Who?” Dee Dee looked around, and almost flinched and ran, catching herself just in time, as a huge green arm swept past overhead, slapping aside a small branch halfway up a tree; the arm was so long that she could see no sign of its owner. Clutching a bunch of nuts like huge acorns, the hand withdrew. Even as it did, something long, thin and many-legged darted out from between two trees and looked at her out of a face like a needle, surmounted by two bulging eyes. The creature, whatever it was, made as if to rush towards her, but Granchu picked up his staff and moved towards it, whereupon it turned and darted away.

“It sucks your joy in life away,” Granchu said. “It kills with sadness. That’s what it is like.”

“Are they all like this...dangerous?”

“Some are, some aren’t. But the Forest is no place for you.”

“But then,” Dee Dee asked, “where shall we go? I can’t go back.”

Granchu thought. It was an arresting process in itself. His entire forehead gathered itself together in a corrugated plate of skin that seemed to slide over his face, and his pointed ears folded forwards towards his squinting little eyes. “There’s only one place you can go,” he said at last. “It’s the Land of Nowhere. Surely you’ve heard of it?”

“Yes, but of course nobody knows where it really is or how to get there. You mean it actually exists?”

“Far away,” Granchu responded, as if he had not heard her question, “in the centre of the Forest, stands the World Tree, whose branches reach the highest clouds. And high in those branches is the Station. We must get you to the Station. But I warn you that it won’t be easy.”

“Why?” asked Dee Dee. “What is this Station?”  

“It’s where you can take the airship to Nowhere Land,” Granchu said.

“Don’t eat that,” Granchu snapped.    

“Don’t eat what?” Dee Dee had reached out for another handful of the thick brownish mushrooms like those from the previous night, which grew at the base of one of the trees they were passing. “Why not? I’m hungry, and so is Badur.”

“They’re poison,” Granchu said tightly. “Strange things happen to those who eat them.”

“Strange things? Like what?” Guiltily, Dee Dee slipped the pieces of mushroom she had plucked into her pocket.

“Never you mind. It varies from person to person. I’ll find you food.” Granchu said nothing more, but Dee Dee had an odd idea. She had eaten the mushrooms the previous night, and she had been able to see Granchu, something he hadn’t expected. Badur, who hadn’t eaten them, was unable to see Granchu or sense him.  She patted the big dog, who whined a little from his hunger.

“Here,” said Granchu suddenly. They were passing a high mound of earth, and he stopped and pried with his spiked shaft at a flat stone set in it. With a strange sucking sound, the stone shifted, revealing a dark hole underneath. It was not a particularly deep hole, but deep enough for Granchu to have to jump down inside. He began handing out things to Dee Dee, little bags and packets, until there was a small heap on the ground beside her.

“Food,” he said at last, climbing out and levering the stone back. Badur had watched with interest and surprise the sight of the stone rolling away and back with no agency apparently helping it. He sniffed at the packets, unknowingly almost touching one of Granchu’s muscular blue legs with his nose.

“Go ahead,” Granchu said. “Eat.” He opened one of the little bags and handed it to Dee Dee. It lay on her palm, a handful of brownish powder, and when she touched it with the tip of her tongue she found it tasted nutty. She licked it away quickly. Badur had opened another packet for himself and gulped what it contained, something that looked like small reddish sticks. Granchu ate nothing. He just watched them eat until it was all gone.

“Are you full?” he said at last.

Dee Dee nodded. It wasn’t true. The food had been less than enough, much less, but at least it had taken the edge off her hunger. Badur had also stopped whining. “It’s enough,” she said.

“There will be more in the airship.” Granchu turned away without another word and walked on, following some invisible trail between the trees that twisted and turned unpredictably. At one point he led them on to a series of large moss-covered boulders.

“Why can’t we walk on the ground?” Dee Dee asked.

“Just get on them,” Granchu said. And when Dee Dee had led Badur on to the rocks, she had seen, lying where they would have otherwise walked, a great greyish translucent creature, shapeless except for a pair of yellowish eyes, which was coiled and piled on the ground and seemed to have oozed out of the folds and crevices of the soil. She felt she could barely breathe until they had left it far behind. Even when they were walking on level ground again, it was as if she could feel it at her feet and its dull yellow gaze upon her.

The shadows lay deep on the floor of the Forest, and it was only from the heat that Dee Dee understood that the sun was now high in the sky. They had been going on for so long that her legs were aching and Badur’s long pink tongue hung from his mouth, but Granchu showed no sign of tiring. For someone of his small size he was moving amazingly fast. “We have to go on,” he snapped over his shoulder. “Especially with what you can see, this place is not safe for you. You can’t spend another night here.”

Once only they stopped, at a small pool of water at which Badur lapped gratefully. Dee Dee, too, splashed the water over her face and arms, but resisted the temptation to drink it. She thought she could see things in the water, tiny and gelid and wriggling. It was almost certainly her imagination, she told herself, but for all that she could not force herself to drink the water.

By the time it had begun to get cool again, even Granchu had come to the conclusion that the girl and the dog would, after all, have to spend a second night in the Forest. He fed them again, this time from a hollowed out tree, and he ate, too, from a packet. The food this time was moist and sweetish, not very different in texture and taste from the mushrooms, but even Badur ate it without giving any trouble and there were no brilliant lights afterwards. Of course, everyone was very tired.

“Look up there,” Granchu said shortly afterwards, pointing to a gap in the branches. Dee Dee had to bend almost to ground level to see what he was looking at. Far away, bathed in the golden evening sunlight, she saw something that she took at first to be an immense tower. It was only after a few moments that she could accept that what she was seeing was the trunk and branches of a tree.

“That,” Granchu said, “is the World Tree.”

It was so tall that the topmost branches were lost among the feathery clouds, so high that it seemed that one could climb it and step off on to the moon. It was so tall that her mind reeled at the sheer contemplation of it, and she grew dazed and breathless. “Is it...real?”

“Of course it’s real,” Granchu snapped. “You’re going to be climbing it tonight.”

“Climbing it?”

“The airship station is on the tree,” Granchu said, “and of course you’re going to have to climb it. You can’t spend another night down here. You’re in trouble already.”

“We are?”

Granchu silently pointed back along the way they had come. Dee Dee turned just in time to see something, a flash of movement between the trees, but she could not say what it was. The branches of a tree shook, even though there was no breeze.

“What are they?” asked Dee Dee, when they had walked on. Darkness was gathering in the sky, even down on the Forest floor she could feel it. “Are they dangerous?”

“Let us hope you don’t have to find out,” Granchu said. “I can’t protect you from the likes of them.” He began to walk faster. If they had hurried then, they almost ran now, and behind them, if Dee Dee glanced over her shoulder, was always the movement, never really seen clearly, but always there, flashing between trees and shaking branches, and, as the darkness fell, clearly getting closer. “We have to make the Tree before dark,” Granchu said.

Darkness in the Forest never really goes away, even in the glare of noon; the canopy overhead is far too thick for that. When the evening comes down on the land, therefore, the darkness seizes the Forest in its grip even when the sun has yet to go down all the way in the outer world. Dee Dee found herself straining to see where she should put her feet, but Granchu had no such problems. He could either see in the dark better than she could, or else he had some other sense, like Badur had smell. Whatever it was, he was running as fast as he could, on his short legs, at a pace equivalent to her fastest walk, without stumbling or colliding with tree trunks or losing the invisible path that he was following. And behind, even though she could hear nothing, she knew pursuit was coming ever closer, waiting only for complete darkness to make its final move.

She had just begun holding a hand up before her face to warn her of obstacles when  great black mass rose before her.

“Here’s the Tree,” Granchu said. He had begun to glow a very faint greenish hue in the darkness, so that she could see the vague outlines of her form. “We have to go up.”

“How?” Dee Dee panted, pointing to Badur. “He can’t climb.”

Granchu glanced at the huge dog. “Follow me,” he snapped, and ran on towards the great black mass of the Tree, so that it seemed he would be swallowed up in it.

High walls of blackness closed around Dee Dee. She wondered for a moment if there were hills or ridges at the foot of the gigantic tree before her, and then realisation struck: she was between two of the immense roots.

Now, behind them, she could hear the sounds, like an eager panting, something that made a slobbering, hungry noise, and was coming so quickly nearer that it surely must be rushing towards them with tremendous speed. She understood then that she could not even lose the moments necessary to look back over her shoulder. The danger was far too immediate for that.

The ground seemed to rise beneath her feet suddenly, and she could see Granchu now at eye level to her, beckoning frantically. She summoned up a spurt of energy and sprinted forward, the dog panting at her side. It was like a road going up, uneven and slippery, but broad enough for them to run abreast. She reached Granchu and doubled over, gasping.

“We just made it,” Granchu said. “They can’t climb the Tree.”

“What...what can’t climb the Tree?”

Granchu pointed silently. Dee Dee turned to look.

Behind her the darkness seemed to be cleaved by a ridge of light, as though the space between the great roots was filled with a glowing, greenish mist. The mist thrust out tendrils and wisps in their direction, but was unable to grip the Tree and pull itself up. Strange glowing shapes moved in it, globular and immense, and smaller, brighter points of light darted here and there. From within the mist came that slushing, slobbering noise that she had heard.

“What is it?” she whispered, holding on to Badur’s collar.

“One of the Powers,” Granchu said. “They can only observe during the day but roam the Forest at night. You were fortunate indeed that one did not find you last night, I think.” He peered at her. “They are beyond my control, and although they are not a danger to me, I would not care to be captured by one of them.” He touched Dee Dee’s bare leg. “Shall we go?”

The path they followed spiralled upwards, rising slowly ever higher, and still broad enough to walk abreast, until Dee Dee decided that they were walking up a kind of creeper coiled round the Tree. It was so dark that she could see nothing except the faintly glowing form of Granchu before her, but if she looked down she could see vague moving patches of greenish light far below. They gave her some reference of how high they had climbed.

After a while she could go no further from exhaustion, and said so. Granchu peered back at her, obviously annoyed.

“We aren’t out of danger yet,” he told her. “All right, you wait. I’ll be right back.” He scampered up the trunk of the tree, vertically up, and was soon lost to view.

Left alone with Badur for the first time since the morning, Dee Dee felt the absence of the little blue man acutely. She hunkered down to wait with the dog, hugging him to herself for the warmth. Badur snuffled at her, hungrily, and she reached automatically into her pocket for dog biscuits to feed him. Of course there were none. She had given them to him already. Instead, her fingers found something soft and leathery, something mysterious. Only when she had taken it out did she realise it was the piece of mushroom she had picked earlier in the day, before Granchu had objected.

“No food,” she told Badur, dropping the piece of wilted fungus by her side, and sat down with her back to the trunk. The darkness was so intense that it was like a living thing. She could feel it pressing on her.

Something moved in the darkness. Right where she was looking, there was a movement. Something greenish-yellow pushed the darkness aside momentarily, and then vanished again. She stiffened, and Badur, feeling the tension in her, growled softly.

“Quiet,” she told him. The movement came again, and now she could see something, a vague form across from her, but the movement blurred in her eyesight, and she could hardly make out anything at all. She shut her eyes tight until they watered and opened them again. Now she could see, but what she saw made her wish she had kept her eyes closed. Something was looking at her across a short stretch of the darkness.

It had a blunt face, with long sharp needle-teeth and eyes that seemed to glitter with darkness, eyes darker even than the night. The powerful jaws with the long teeth opened and snapped closed, and opened again, and the great head seemed to thrust at her. She shrank back against the bole of the tree, trying to force herself not to jump to her feet and run headlong. By her side, Badur growled.

It was the growl that broke the spell. She felt the dog tense and gather himself up, ready to spring, and she reached out and held on to his collar. “Wait,” she hissed warningly into his ear, and then the significance of the growl came to her. “You see it too?”

The first face had been joined by a second, and, further away, by a third. Now, suddenly, she realised why they had not made any move to attack. They were not on the Tree, but in the branches of one of the other trees. Dee Dee and Badur were on a level with the forest canopy.

“I wish Granchu would hurry up,” Dee Dee said anxiously, watching the faces. Her hand fell on the wood where she had placed the wilted mushroom, but it wasn’t there any longer. “SO that’s why you can see them,” she told the dog. “Quiet, Badur. Quiet.”

A succession of tiny lights came down the Tree towards them. Badur growled again, and she stood up and held on to his collar tightly. The lights were closer, pinpoints of brightness in the dark, and now she could see Granchu in front. Behind him came people of another folk, much larger than he was.

“Are you all right?” Granchu asked. He glanced at the sharp-toothed creatures in the other tree. “Don’t worry about them,” he muttered. “They aren’t anywhere close, and they can’t leap the gap.”

Badur reached out his head and sniffed experimentally at Granchu, whom he had seen for the first time. The tiny blue man stiffened, but the dog did not try to growl or bite. Behind Granchu the others with him made a rough semicircle, and now for the first time she could get a clear idea of what kind of people they were.

The tallest was about the height of her elbow, and the shortest reached her waist. They were grey-skinned, wide-faced, and had great drooping thin-lipped mouths and sleepy-looking, hooded eyes. Their ears were long and pointed, and their wrinkled, mottled scalps hairless except for a few long silky white hairs that stood upright. They wore rough brownish clothes like gowns, and apart from the short sticks with glowing ends each carried, they had bundles of various shapes and sizes in their hands. None of them had weapons of any sort.

“They are the People of the Tree,” Granchu explained. “They run the airship station.”

“You fetched them to help us?” Dee Dee asked. “But why?”

“You’ll never make it to the top without help before daybreak,” Granchu said, “and that’s when tomorrow’s airship comes. Trust me, you won’t be able to spend another night here in the Forest, either of you. With the forces that will gather by that time, even we won’t be able to protect you come tomorrow night.”

The folk he had called the People of the Tree had begun unwrapping their bundles, and now one of them handed Dee Dee a packet full of a brownish paste and a small flask with a stopper. It was full of a sweet warm liquid, and she drank gratefully from it. She had not realised how thirsty she had been. When she had drunk her fill, she poured the rest into her palm and let Badur lick it up from there. The brownish paste had a strange flavour, but she ate it, and gave Badur what was left.

By the time she had finished the last of it, her head had begun to feel curiously light and she had become a little dizzy. When she opened her mouth to speak, her tongue refused to help form the sounds. Granchu and the pointy-eared people seemed to recede to some point far away, and when she tried to walk towards them, her legs refused to obey her. With a gentle moan, she slid down to the wood and sprawled next to Badur, who was already snoring.

Dee Dee became aware of a rhythmic swaying. She tried to raise her head or move her limbs, but she could not. With great difficulty she forced her eyes partly open. All she saw was a dim yellow orange reflection of light on a passing wall-like surface. Dully, she realised that it was the glowing sticks of the People reflecting on the bark of the tree. Unable to sustain the effort, she let her eyes fall shut again.

An indeterminate time passed. Sometimes they stopped, and moved on again. Once she felt hands gently touch her face, and knew somehow that someone was leaning over her, full of concern, and she knew that the person was Granchu. At other times she may have slept, and when she did, she dreamt that she was sinking into a sticky black morass, and her mother was smiling grimly and telling her, “That’s what happens when you play in the mud without permission.”

“It’s not my fault,” she tried to reply, but her mother reached down with a hand to push her right down into the mire. Her mother’s hand was huge and each finger ended in a long curved nail like a bird’s talons. “You’ve got to drown,” the woman said, and the huge hand pressed down on Dee Dee’s shoulder. “You’ve got to.”

Dee Dee woke to the hand on her shoulder, shaking her. “You’ve got to wake up now,” someone was saying. “You’ve got to.”

Slowly, with effort, she opened her eyes.

She was lying under a ceiling of rough bark-covered wood, and her surroundings were bathed in orange light. Something blotted the light out; a great black head with enormous ears and a wet cold nose and a slobbering tongue. Badur licked her face anxiously. She tried to smile and tell him to stop licking, but all she could manage was a ghost of a whisper.

“Try and sit up.” It was Granchu’s voice. Hands held her arms and gently pushed her until she was sitting upright. The little blue man was there now, staring at her, but there seemed to be a curtain between him and her: he receded and came closer and wavered and shimmered, and she couldn’t focus on him properly. She began to feel intensely thirsty.

“You’ll be all right,” Granchu said. “The drug was far too strong for you, but we had no way of knowing. None of your people has ever had it before.” She listened to him without understanding.

“Here, drink this.” Someone, not Granchu – it was a bigger hand, and greyish, not blue – held something to her mouth. Her lips felt the roughness of an unpolished wooden bowl, and she sipped involuntarily. The liquid was warm and had a slightly bitter taste, but she drank it all because of the thirst. As the liquid hit the pit of her stomach a warm glow began to spread out from within her, filling her body with heat, until she began sweating heavily. And as she sweated it was as though whatever it was they had given her, that had made her feel so weak, was washed away, and she felt slowly more like herself.

She found that she was looking down at her pink dress, the one her mother had given her for her birthday. It was no longer pink. The dirt and stains on it made it impossible to call it any one colour any longer, but she felt grateful for that, as though a mark of her parents’ home was being sloughed away from her. Her hands, which her mother had always insisted were to be kept washed and pink, were ragged-nailed and caked with unidentifiable dirt. She wondered what her hair, which her mother had insisted she keep long and brush twice a day, was like, and giggled.

“I think she’s feeling better,” she heard Granchu say. The little blue man shook one of her hands by the thumb. “Are you any better, girl?”

“I think so.” Even her voice was stronger. “Where are we?”

“At the airship station, almost at the top of the Tree. We had to carry you and your dog up on litters, and because we needed you not to move you were given a drug. Your dog reacted well to it, but you...” he shrugged. “Well, you’re all right now, and that’s all that matters. The airship’s due in a few hours.”

“And you...what shall you do?”

He sat down and put his spiked staff, tip down, on the floor and rolled it between his palms. “I’ll go back down and get on with life, I suppose.”

“I wish...” It was not easy for Dee Dee, who had never had anything given her unconditionally in her life, to put her feelings into words, but she tried. “I wish I could explain adequately how very grateful I am. But I’m afraid I’m awfully bad at explaining things like that.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Granchu said. He grinned at her, his immense tusks making the grin look fierce and friendly at the same time. “I know what you’re trying to tell me, and that’s what matters.”

“Is it daylight outside?” she asked, feeling that he was embarrassed as well.

“Just about.” He stood up. “Do you think you can get up now and try to walk? Careful,” he added and grabbed at her hand as she stumbled slightly. “You aren’t very co-ordinated yet.”

“I’ll be all right.” She saw she was in a kind of room made by branches of the tree that grew out from a single point. Still living leaves and twigs that grew from those branches had been twined and lashed together to make walls and the floor was carpeted by dead leaves. The glowing sticks that she had seen earlier illuminated the space, which was long and not narrow. Several of the brown-clad People of the Tree were doing various things, most of which were incomprehensible to her. Badur was sitting near the opening at the far end. He saw her and trotted up with a glad whine.

“He’s been no trouble at all,” Granchu said. He took her hand – reaching above his head to do so – and helped her walk up and down the room. The pins and needles in her legs were ferocious.

“I should tell you something,” Dee Dee said, and explained about the mushrooms. Granchu listened and gave a short harsh laugh. “I’m glad you told me that,” he said. “I can just see the forest wizards racking their brains to figure out what magic you had used to discover us. And it was just the mushrooms!”

By the time Dee Dee was confident on her legs the patch of sky at the far end was pink with dawn, and Granchu led her outside, Badur following behind. They stood side by side on a wide flat ledge that Dee Dee accepted only with difficulty was a branch of the Tree. It seemed as wide as one of the boulevards of her city. At the far end, metal spikes had been driven into the wood and there were structures she could not identify, mechanisms and tanks and round globular clusters, like some of the science fiction programmes she had seen on TV. Some of the People of the Tree were working on and around the machines. Something began thumping with a steady beat.

“Come this way,” Granchu said. He led her to one side, where a branch from overhead hung down past them. With his spiked staff he swung the branch aside.

Dee Dee gasped.

Distance lay before her, infinite distance, marked only by flattened clouds painting a darkling sky. Far below her lay a green mottled carpet that was still shadowed by night, which she realised was the Forest, so far below her now that it seemed impossible that only yesterday those trees had looked to her as if they would touch the sky.

“I’ve lived there all my life,” Granchu said. “And of course, being so much smaller than you, it seems even bigger to me. But from away up here it doesn’t seem that big at all, does it?”

“Have your people always lived here in the Forest?”

“As long as the Forest has existed, we’ve lived here,” Granchu said. “We shall always live here in the Forest.”

“And you’ve kept yourselves hidden from my kind?”

“Do you wonder at it? Your kind and mine don’t mix.”

Granchu let the leaves fall back into place and led her further along the branch, to a point where they had an unrestricted view. 

“Look over there,” he said, pointing.

Far away, at the horizon, she saw it then: like a curtain of light, that came and went and vibrated at the fringes of visibility, sometimes white, sometimes yellow, and sometimes sparkling with the colours of the rainbow.

“What is it?” she whispered.

“That’s the border of the Land of Nowhere,” Granchu said. He pointed at something else. “And there is the airship, coming.”

It was a shape like a tiny teardrop on its side, small and dark against that pale shimmer, and moving so slowly that only after she had watched it long enough for the first of the rays of the sun to strike her did she accept that it was moving at all. “It only goes from the Tree to Nowhere and back again?” she asked.

“Oh, it makes other trips, to lands we don’t know about, and the crew can tell you strange stories. But today it’s travelling only to Nowhere.”

“What’s there, beyond the border?” Dee Dee asked. “Don’t you know at all?”

“No...but you’ll find out. If you ever can, try and send a message to let me know.”

They stood and watched the airship come closer. By now it was no longer a teardrop but a great elongated cigar, with a shining silver skin stretched over a metal skeleton, and whirring propellers turning behind slung gondolas under the craft’s immense belly. It manoeuvred slowly, carefully, orienting itself with the tangle of machinery at the end of the branch. Someone aboard fired a line that arced through the air and was drawn in by one of the grey-skinned People at the station. Another line followed, and another. A machine started up with a whining noise and pulled the airship in to the station. Finally, the giant craft’s motors whirred down to silence and the propellers stopped turning.

“Every time I see it,” Granchu said, “I’m impressed by the performance.”

“Have they been coming here for long?”

“Long enough...” Granchu stepped aside as a number of the People of the Tree went by carrying strange machines, cylinders and long corrugated hoses. Many machines had started up in the meantime, with whines, thumps, chattering noises, bangs and crashes. She could hear voices calling to each other above the noise of the machinery.

“You’d better get abroad if you’re going,” someone said, in a big hearty voice. Dee Dee turned to see a creature as big as a large man, and much thicker around. He – it was evidently a male from the voice – had a round blunt face and short tusks projecting from the upper jaw of a wide mouth. Apart from the pale lilac colour of the skin, the entire effect was not too unlike that of a walrus.

“We won’t be here long,” beamed this creature. He had a small round cap on his head and wore an overall that was hung around with belts and buckles. He took off the cap and mopped his bow. “Leaving as soon as loading-up’s completed.”

“Uh...” something suddenly occurred to Dee Dee. “I don’t have anything to pay my passage.”

“Who said anything about paying?” boomed the walrus. He slapped theatrically at his forehead. “Pay, she says! No, dear, anyone’s welcome along for the ride. But you’d better get aboard now, because we’ll be leaving before the sun heats the air much further. We don’t want to fight air currents all the way back.”

“Which way do we go?” Dee Dee kept a tight grip on Badur’s collar.

“Go straight along,” the walrus said, pointing to a light metallic path that led up from the branch to a square opening in the bottom of the huge cigar shape. “Once you get inside, ask anyone where the passenger quarters are.”

“All right,” Dee Dee said. “Come on, Badur.” She turned to Granchu, and knelt so that her face was on  a level with his small blue countenance. “I suppose this is goodbye,” she said.

“I’ll miss you.” Granchu patted her affectionately on the shoulder. “And I’ll be envious too. After all, you’ll be seeing what lies there in Nowhere Land and all I’ll do is go down to the Forest.” He paused. “Don’t forget to send word if you can, to let me know what it’s like over there.”

“Come along with us,” Dee Dee said, almost in a whisper. “We might need you there too.”

Granchu shook his head. “That won’t be right,” he said. “You’d better go in, they’re almost through.”

Dee Dee looked back over her shoulder. The tempo of the work at the airship had changed. Now they seemed to be removing what they had fitted earlier and a few of the People of the Tree who had gone inside the airship came out again.

“Yes,” Dee Dee said. “We’d better be going. Still...” She turned back and gave an involuntary gasp of astonishment. Granchu was gone.

“He must have thought it was better this way,” she decided. “It’s a pity. I wanted to say good bye to him...” Holding on to the big dog’s collar, she walked along the branch to the silver metal ramp and up it to the square opening. The walrus who had spoken to her earlier was busy with a list on which he was checking off items. He smiled at her with his blunt tusks.

“Go along there,” he said, pointing to his right. Like everyone else, he did not seem to notice the dirt on her clothes. “You’ll find the passenger section, with seats. It’s empty right now, though.”

Inside, the airship’s cylindrical body reminded her a little of a cathedral, with a great vaulted roof overhead, though that roof was supported by a grid of metal struts. From the vault hung rippling folds of cloth like sails, which billowed and flapped and rustled.

“They’re gas cells.” It was something that looked a little like a frog, bulging eyes and a lipless mouth, but with long fingers with tips like suction cups. It was impossible to decide its sex. “They’re not completely filled for this trip though. Passengers?” It scarcely waited for Dee Dee’s nod. “Go that way. There, through that door, and sit down. We’re just about to leave.”

It was a medium-sized room with walls that sloped up towards the ceiling and furnished with five rows of large, plush chairs. Along both side walls were large windows, through which she could see the Tree on one side and a lot of sky on the other. She found a seat on the Tree side, craning to see if she could catch a glimpse of Granchu. Even as she sat down, the floor trembled beneath her feet and she felt a vibration in the vessel. The whirring she had heard as the airship had come towards the dock resumed.

“We must be about to leave,” she said to Badur, hugging the big dog until he squirmed. Through the window, she watched the leaves and branches of the Tree slowly move away from the airship, until she could look downwards and see a dizzying gulf underneath, all the way to the canopy of leaves so far below. Already surprisingly far away, she caught a glimpse of the tangle of machinery that made up the station. She even saw a few of the People of the Tree gathering up equipment, but she was too far away to even catch a glimpse of Granchu. Somehow, the scene through the window began to blur and waver. Angrily, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.

The airship gave a slight lurch, and suddenly there seemed to be a rainbow in the air below, clear and bright and shrinking rapidly until it was not a bow but a circle and then a tiny shimmering ring that vanished into the distant trees. She stared at it, open-mouthed.

“It’s the ballast,” someone said conversationally by her side. The voice was so familiar that Dee Dee refused to believe it. Even Badur’s happy whine wasn’t enough. Slowly, her head turned as if controlled by strings.

“Yes,” Granchu continued. He perched on the back of another of the seats and leaned to look down through the window. “They take on water to make the ship heavy enough to control, and when they need to lighten up, they drop some of it overboard. I’ve seen them do it, many times.”

“You,” she said quietly.

“I got to thinking,” Granchu said, still looking through the window at the receding Tree, “that there are maybe more interesting things to do with life than walk around in the Forest – there are enough of us to do that. Then I thought that you’ll probably forget all about sending that message back to tell me what life over there’s like. And then I thought why not come and see for myself. And just maybe a silly little girl with a big dog might need my services sometimes. Do you think she might?”

“You!” she said less quietly, her voice beginning to rise in a squeal of pure delight.

“So, you see,” Granchu said, “I came along.” He grinned his fierce tusked grin. “Now look what you’ve done. Now you’re stuck with me!”

“Somehow, I think we can handle that,” Dee Dee said, sitting back and hugging her knees happily.

Through the windows, they watched as, with every turn of the propellers, the shimmering light of the Border drifted ever closer.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2009/12

No comments:

Post a Comment

Full comment moderation is enabled on this site, which means that your comment will only be visible after the blog administrator (in other words, yours truly) approves it. The purpose of this is not to censor dissenting viewpoints; in fact, such viewpoints are welcome, though it may lead to challenges to provide sources and/or acerbic replies (I do not tolerate stupidity).

The purpose of this moderation is to eliminate spam, of which this blog attracts an inordinate amount. Spammers, be warned: it takes me less time to delete your garbage than it takes for you to post it.