Short story by Boshemia columnist Alex Nolan.
Clearing was a town in a wide-cut circle of space, among an ocean of trees that spanned miles. Clearing was town where people were born and where they died without ever seeing beyond its borders. No one knew what, if anything, was outside the forest’s borders. It was far too dangerous to explore.
None saw Bakari, hovering at the edge of the crowd. Flakes of white had begun to fall from the sky, drifting to rest on the black garments of those gathered. Many had assembled. Hasan had been more popular than he would ever have admitted. As the last of the earth filled the grave, the mother placed her lit candle atop it, blew it out and spoke her prayer. All were silent. Thicker flurries drifted down from the sky. The priest spoke her final words and the congregation left. Bakari waited. The snow fell thicker, and still he waited. When he was sure, he walked to the grave. With a shaking hand, he lit the candle with a golden tinderbox. Shielding it, he closed his eyes. As he cried, his heart trembled. The prayer sounded thin between his cracked lips.
Bakari watched the birds on the ledge across the street, as they flew away over the treeline. He looked up, Mede had fallen asleep at his desk. Standing, he shovelled more coal into the furnace. He wrote a note: “Feeling ill. Have gone home to rest.” Retrieving his coat from the oak stand by the door, he left.
Snow crunched under his boots, and he breathed out in curls of white. As the chill was truly setting in, the streets had cleared of most of the inhabitants. Smoke rose from chimneys, thick and dark against the grey clouds. He pulled the cloak tighter as gooseflesh ran along his arms. The street was straight and narrow, it ran parallel to the town’s main avenue. The wooden buildings were tall, and made the pathway shadowed. He crossed the footbridge where the river ran through and paused, looking down its length he could just make out his home. All the lights were out. Bakari bit his lip and looked down at the water. Melting ice had made it full, and it rushed towards the treeline in the west. Turning, he walked onwards.
It took no more than half an hour to reach the felled trees at the edge of Clearing. Young, replanted trees grew just beyond that; though they were stunted, spindly things. Snow cover was deeper here, he could feel the freezing water starting to seep into his shoes. As he passed under the canopy, the crunching ice was replaced with a soft bed of needles; the corner of his mouth twitched upwards at the scent. Small comforts. Rarely tread, the pathways between town and border were difficult to follow. Bakari lit the lamp strung to his waist, illuminating the gloom and casting wild shadows among the branches. Shrubbery here had already been picked clean of winter berries. He looked around, but the woods were quiet. Still, his pulse quickened a fraction.
Just where the woods grew dense, he came upon the wall. Made of red stone, it came up to his navel. He reached out and the air above it rippled, shimmering blue and green; sycamore leaves reflected in the summer pond. He smiled. From the leather pouch on his belt, Bakari pulled out the old charm. A worn thing – a star carved in pine. It smelled like the dying embers of a fire. Holding it aloft, he whispered the ancient words. Crimson fractures, like cracks in shattered glass appeared on the invisible barrier. Gripping the charm, his palms were sweating. Climbing over the wall was like walking in a gale. Yet, in an instant it was over. The red disappeared, and Bakari stood on the other side. Hands gripping his knees, he took deep breaths.
Little light reached this part of the forest, and the day had begun to dim. Bakari’s lamp illuminated only a small circle around him. With little but intuition as a guide, he walked onwards. The trees were older, the trunks were thicker and their branches weaved together in a mesh that blocked out the sky. Fungal life was all that seemed to grow on the forest floor here; mushrooms with funnel caps that were the colour of beeswax. It was still and silent, save for the sound of Bakari’s footsteps, and smelled of moist earth and tree litter. The thin trail he was following wound around trees but did not veer wildly in any direction.
As he walked, his pool of light began constricting. He topped it up some with a vial of oil from his pouch, and the flame grew. The amount of light did not. Still, he persisted. The illumination of the lamp dimmed until it reached mere inches from his feet. Relying on his hands, Bakari felt his way on, pressing against the rough bark as he crept forward. In the shadows, there were flutters and the stamp of hooves. Though his chest trembled, he continued forwards. The lamp sputtered out, and he kept going. Hooves to left, wingbeats to the right. They got closer with each step he took. With one more step he walked straight into something solid. A tree. He turned to walk in another direction. Out of the gloom, titanic eyes shone black. Bakari collapsed.
When he roused, it was as though he sat in void. Could he not feel the carpet of needles below him, he might well have thought he was. The lurch of his heart upon seeing the creature almost rendered him catatonic once more. It seemed to produce its own unearthly light. Eight feet tall, it had the body of a doe and it stood on talons for hindlegs. Feathered wings were folded at its back and the mammalian head tapered down into the beak of an owl.
Why has the deal been broken? It spoke into his mind, but it used his voice.
Bakari shook his head.
It was decided between your people and mine, long ago. You shall not leave the town. Why have you?
His throat was dry.
Why did you leave the town? Why has the deal been broken?
He shook his head, held up a hand. The creature leaned closer, the tip of its beak a foot in front his face.
It was decided. That was to be your place. Why have you broken the deal?
“Because it is not my place. There’s nothing there for me. My lover is dead, and I cannot mourn. I cannot seek the solace of a friend, I cannot openly cry. There was no one else, there was only us. Even if I had not loved Hasan, he was the only other one. There must be a place where there are others like us. There must be somewhere that I am not wrong for existing.” His strangled speech became a shout, “I have broken the deal because the man I love was buried, and I was not invited to the funeral.”
We will help you find the way out.
And once again, he faded from consciousness.
When he awoke, the moon was high overhead, it was full and bright. Bakari stood, he faced a line of trees. His heart hammered, but when he turned around it soared. Bathed in silver night, was a wide open expanse of grass. He ran, whooping with joy. He would be first person to be born in the town of Clearing who did not also die there. He did not look back.