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1This is the first chapter of an as yet unpublished novel.

2The boy’s name was Alexander, and the first time he found it important to have a name was when the nursery-school teacher asked what he was called. Alexander was at that time in primary school. He had always felt a deep respect for the lives of animals and was quite disgusted by the way they were treated all over the world. He had seen scenes filmed in slaughterhouses on television, and the impotence of humankind to feel any empathy towards creatures that lived, breathed and suffered, just as human beings did, seemed to him, pure evil. As it happened, he did not have to go very far to see that abuse of sentient life. There were many sportsmen in his village, and although he had not yet seen people foxhunting, he had more than once come across hunters on their way back from the woods and fields, with their shotguns slung across one shoulder and the bodies of dead Rabbits hanging like mere bags from the other. The ruffled fur, in places tinged with crimson, gave the impression that the creatures were still warm, but their wide-open eyes showed that they were definitely dead.

3Once, he was the witness of a scene which he would never forget. It took place at Stephy’s house, one of his schoolmates, by the drive, on the fresh grass, probably because her father did not want to spill blood in his house. After school and in the summer holidays, Alexander would often spend his afternoons outdoors, either playing with his friends in the sand-pit of the village playground or biking in the streets, up to the fields beyond. When he came to Stephy’s house, her father was going outdoors with a Lamb. He saw Alexander but did not even warn or tell him to look away. He just bundled the animal into a brownish canvas bag. Obviously, it demanded great effort to keep the Lamb from struggling and running away, and although Alexander could no longer see it, except for its slender hoofed feet sometimes peeping out of the bag, he could feel the panic of the helpless creature, as it tried its utmost to get free. Presently the Human Ogre produced a big butcher’s knife and stabbed the animal several times, through the canvas bag. Alexander, who was standing there almost gasping, could take no more and ran away to his house.

4It was his first experience of the Living Dead, the first time he had seen them as they really were. However, it was more an impression than something he actually saw. He could see the man, looking as Human as him, but his grin – for his friend’s father had been smiling throughout – seemed to have stretched into a Skeleton’s grin, without lips, cheeks or skin. His true Living Dead countenance had been superimposed on his Human features like an optical special effect in an old film or television series. It was also that that made Alexander run away. At any rate, he could not forget the Lamb’s terror and agony, and he promised himself that if, one day, he found another creature in danger, he would try to rescue it.

5That day was not long in coming. One afternoon, he and a couple of friends from his class found two Dogs in the streets of their village, and Alexander decided to remove their collars. He thought that they had been abandoned and was afraid that they might hurt themselves, when running through woods and bushes, and even die; a thin bough or twig, he said to his friends, might thrust itself between their collars and throats, and either break their necks as they ran or strangle them. His schoolmates, half jeering at him, thus nicknamed him the ‘animal lover’, the ‘protector’. It was the same concern, the protection of the helpless, which led him to boldly speak his name before the nursery-school teacher.

6Because his village was small, there was only one class, and one teacher for each of the nursery and primary schools, and they shared the same building and the same playground. It was divided into an open and a covered area, and in the latter, there were Swallows’ nests hanging from the ceiling. The very idea of children playing basketball there, thus endangering the nests and everything living inside, made him anxious. He could imagine the hard, rough orange balls crushing the delicate stuff of the nests, the thin shells of its invisible eggs and the helpless baby birds; he had seen so many of them lying dead on the pavement in the attempt to fly out of their little homes. To prevent that, he warned the schoolmistresses, but they did not really care. When one of the nests was destroyed, the nursery teacher naturally blamed the pupils. The young boy was disgusted:

7You are responsible, not us!’ he boldly admonished her. ‘You were in charge and I told you this would happen!’

8He said this angrily but there was also some contempt in his voice. Her apathetic carelessness had suddenly filled him with anger, and it was overwhelming him, swelling up in his heart like stale water in a dark well under the effect of some unexpected subterranean turmoil. The schoolteacher, however, was not going to let this impertinent brat disrespect her. She was an adult after all, and he was a child. She had lived longer than he had, and she was working hard to earn a living while he was looked after by his parents; she knew better.

9‘How dare you speak to me like that? I’ll teach you manners! What’s your name, anyway?’ she asked, since she did not really know the pupils in the primary school class, and he could tell from the tone of her voice that this was meant to frighten him. He cooled down and decided to catch her out at her own game:

10‘Hum… Alex… Alexander Wilfried, Madam.’

11‘Well, Mr Wilfried, you can spend the rest of the break writing lines. Let me think… “Children should know their place and respect adults...” Fifty times will do! Maybe you’ll think twice, next time, before speaking to me that way!’

12He found her and her punishment contemptible. His anger had subsided and given way to greater satisfaction; he had boldly spoken his name before one of the Living Dead, and for him, it was like openly challenging her whole kind. After class, he went to see the nest and was relieved to see that there were neither eggs nor baby birds in it.

13The absurd treatment of animals was the main developer, as photographers would say; it was what best revealed the real features and true nature of the Living Dead, but there were many other instances of living death on Earth. Social and political injustice was a major theme on television and Alexander often heard his parents talking about it. Television also showed scenes of war and violence pitting men against men or against women and children, and, sometimes, men who pretended to be on the side of good could use nuclear weapons to raze whole cities, even though they knew perfectly well that they would miss their main targets. It had already happened a couple of times. The boy could not bear it and he would either switch channels or leave the lounge for his more secure bedroom, which at that time he shared with his sister. At night, when he could not go to sleep and she was still awake, she would tell him stories in the dark, mimicking with her hands two Snake-like creatures talking with one another. She was younger than him and did not care whether he could see her hands or not, as long as he could see the creatures.

14Although they did not look like them, his schoolmates sometimes acted like the Living Dead, for they spoke, behaved and seemed to think in the same way. They were all religious, even though they did not really care about their God or feel any need to believe in one. The only time they had been enthusiastic about catechism was when they had been given candles, which they did not fail to flaunt before Alexander. They also idolised hunting and longed for the day when they would at last accompany their fathers in the fields to finger their own little shotguns, while their mothers stayed at home cleaning the house and cooking the dinner.

15The Human race was indeed a race of Living Dead, although they did not always appear to be so and there were some exceptions. Alexander’s parents, for instance, had never appeared to him as Living Dead. They were too open-minded and generous. Besides, they never told him how to think and would let him form his own opinions, only counterbalancing the ideas which he had heard at school, in the playground or in class. They seldom punished him and were outraged each time they heard that his schoolmates had been slapped in the face in class or at home, for not doing what was expected from them. His mind was therefore relatively free to wander on its own chosen paths, which, however, kept winding and turning backward, as he learnt from his mistakes. For instance, it had been an error to remove the Dogs’ collars and he was very sorry about that, even ashamed. He had no right to do it and the fear that they might die in the woods was out of proportion. Still, it was not a great crime or even immoral, and anyway, morality was no argument. He had read in a graphic novel that morality and words like ‘honour’ or ‘courage’ were nothing but political spells cast on people to force them to go to war or do difficult and dangerous jobs for their rulers, bind them to their condition and never revolt. History, which he began to study in primary school, showed evidence of that and so did the stories told by the media or in films, for instance, in his favourite, Planet of the Apes.

16When he reached his teens, he already had a very low opinion of Humankind. He felt and sometimes even saw that Humankind was not quite alive, but rather dead. His first sight of the Living Dead had scared him, but his empathy for the Lamb had eventually overcome his fear. He became used to the superimposition of grinning death’s heads on Human faces. They were more than mere impressions and became part of everyday life, the texture of reality. The Living Dead no longer filled him with fear, but with anger and despair.

17The name of Alexander’s village was Salvington. As its name suggested, the village lay on the edge of a forest, although in the past, it had entirely been surrounded by woods, a small settlement reclaimed from the forest and built on the left bank of a brook. The stream ran through the woods and merged with the neighbouring town’s bigger river, which, after a long journey, eventually flowed into the Atlantic. The Celts had built the village, the Romans developed and renamed it, and the Vikings settled there in their turn, sailing up the river from the coast to this inland haven of promising soil. There were indeed villages around named after Thor, the God of thunder, and there were many people with fair or red hair and light skin living in Salvington. Alexander often wondered about the past and who had lived in his own house centuries before he was born.

18The forest and woods round Salvington were indeed very ancient. The trunks of the broad-leafed oaks were large and tall, with profuse dark-green moss growing on their north sides. Their foliage was so thick that it plunged the woods into darkness in spring and summer, taking over from the overcast sky of autumn and winter. In spite of the woodcutters’ greed, some oaks had lived for more than a century and therefore looked very old. Their serpentine boughs spread out high and wide, like as many arms stretching towards sylvan Gods or sheltering the creatures of the forest from the rain, hail and snow or from the cold light of the stars.

19There were also birches and beeches, larches and a few pine trees, standing where oaks had been felled years before, and chiefly chestnut trees. In autumn, Alexander would pick up nuts with his family, taking care not to prick himself with the short needles of the conker capsules. These were light-green and lay open on the ground, at the foot of the trees, like offerings to the creatures of the forest. Yet the woods looked empty, except for a few birds chirping and skipping in a flutter of wings from branch to branch or bush to bush. Once or twice, Alexander had been lucky enough to catch a fleeting glimpse of graceful Deer and swift Red Squirrels, but this was very rare, because the creatures had learnt to hide away from Man to stay alive.

20When school was over, his mother sometimes took him, his sister and a couple of classmates to the woods, and when they found a rough hut there, made of fallen branches piled one upon another with foliage on top of them, it would immediately become a house in a village from Planet of the Apes. Alexander was Cornelius and at once fell into a mimicking trance, jumping and screaming like the Humanoid Chimpanzee, in and out of his house. He eventually had to leave it, which he did most reluctantly, so as to catch up with the others, who were already on their way back home. His mother would also take them to the ruins of an old abbey, partly hidden behind a thick curtain of creepers and trees, and with his friends, he would swing like Tarzan and Cheetah from the vines – of which there were a few, however strange that may be in a temperate climate. Still, he did not go there on his own, for the woods were often very dark. Besides, in autumn and winter, there were drunken sportsmen frenziedly shooting game and, sometimes even, their own Dogs.

21It was quite different at the seaside. He went there every summer but was not so much interested in the sea, which he found smelly and a little boring, as in the pine forest. He liked to picnic in its warm shade with his family and his cousins Steve and Arnold. The forest looked less ancient than in Salvington, but there was a particular atmosphere there, which only belonged to the pines and firs. In Salvington, the woods’ dense darkness could be intimidating for a child. Here, on the contrary, everything was bright and open: between the pointed treetops, he could still see the warm blue sky spreading overhead and when he had climbed a wooded slope, he could see more clumps of trees on a lower or higher hill. The trails were not of dark, dry mud but sandy and covered with a soft mat of light-brown needles, whose perfume, along with the scent of the trees, would entrance him. He felt so good in the pine forest, as though it was his home or the place where he had been born.

22One day, as he was running around there, shouting and playing with Steve, his older cousin, he went even deeper into the forest. The moment he had got out of the car, the trees’ perfume had reached him and an invisible gate had opened. As he was drawn farther and farther into the forest, the mysterious scent of the pines started diffusing itself throughout his body and mind. He could also feel the pleasant warmth of the sun on his bare skin, since he was only wearing a red swimming suit and white trainers. He was already tanned and the sun made his brown hair lighter, so that he looked like a little blond Pygmy in his vast home forest. It indeed seemed to stretch endlessly on all sides.

23He ceased giving out short, high-pitched shouts of excitement and started running faster like a wild child or beast to encompass the whole magic of the place. He was entranced, a little thing in the presence of a great power, a little lord in a great kingdom. The scent of the pines and firs and the warmth of the sun now penetrated his molecules and atoms, dissolving his mortal envelope from within and re-forming it, cleansing each of its constituent parts and infusing them with the energy of nature, of magic, of remembrance. He slowed down and stopped running, and, as he walked, looked up at the trees on his right and left. They were amazingly tall and their boughs and the green needles on them very high, but their trunks were slender. Alexander kept looking up. The lofty trees seemed to be looking down at him in silence and he could actually make out round black eyes in their barks.

24‘Green Giants,’ he murmured.

25His family were now far behind. Steve, who was dressed in the same way but looked taller and slimmer, had stopped, hearing the calls of the grown-ups. Alexander, however, had kept going, deaf to everything but the breeze-like whispers of the trees. Eventually, his way brought him to a place where the trees stood aside, a clearing in which, here and there, lay remnants of burnt trees. Some sportsmen, woodcutters or other Living Dead had apparently violated the place, cankering it like tumours spreading throughout the forest. Although the soft, odorous mat of pine-needles and fir-cones still encouraged him to walk on, he was forced to halt. In front of him, lying on the ground, something was staring at him, dark, black and still. It felt like a spot of blindness, a blank space in his sight sucking in all that was alive, from the green of the trees to the distant cries of the Seagulls. The tang of burnt wood came from it, dispelling the sweet, more familiar scent of the pine trees.

26Then, he was able to see it more distinctly. The thing was a big dead branch, charred, and its surface was black and uneven. It was the dead limb of one of the Green Giants, now infused with evil, the same evil, he felt, that had attempted to mask the world of dreams and which the young dreamer had recently defeated.

27‘The Dead Pirate,’ he murmured again, this time, in a voice that trembled.

28At these words, black smoke rose from the branch. It did not rise up to the sky or even the treetops but hovered in its course at the height of a man, a tall, looming man. The form was indefinite and intangible, like a Ghost’s, but the boy could make out something like a head and broad shoulders in it. He was now very scared, but, as in his nightmares, he could not move and run. He found it difficult to breathe and swallow his saliva. He was like the statue of a mortal threatened by some malignant God, and was totally hypnotised by the grim shape.

29The pitch-black smoke became less intangible and flowed down in a black mass of hair, coarse moustache and tangled beard. Eyes appeared in the midst of it; they were dark and ringed with black, as though hanging in the eye sockets of a death’s head. His brow was lost in the shade of a large pirate’s hat, black, wet and rotten, but the Dead Pirate retained his ghostly appearance and his long, tangled hair still ended in pitch-black smoke. In the darkness of his shapeless body, the young boy saw the pirate’s clothes, soaked in wine-coloured blood and sea water, and burnt in places, as if he had bled or covered himself with somebody else’s blood, been burnt at the stake and drowned. Still, it was but a fleeting glimpse, and when Alexander looked up again at the eyes of the pirate, they were leering at him. Then, anger seemed to prevail in them, and a strong rough hand appeared and tried to reach out to the boy, but it remained stuck to the intangible shape.

30The breeze in the trees died away and the Green Giants stopped swaying, however slight their sway had been. They were frozen into submission. Presently, the Dead Pirate spoke and, as he was speaking, his lower jaw, with its few remaining teeth, opened and closed with a weird loose lateral movement, as though it was going to fall from his dark hairy head:

31‘You little worm! I curse you! Don’t you recognise me? Don’t you know who I am? I am several things at a time, you little wretch! Curse you! I’m the fear that tells you “die!” I’m the skin you loathe to caress! Curse you! I’m your death! Or maybe I’m something else, some part of your forest, of your dear little forest! Your horror… Curse you! How dare you resist my power? Do you think you can defy me? That you can turn your nightmares into dreams? Did you think you were safe, here, in your forest, in your little kingdom? That your trees could protect you or make you powerful? Do you think you’re significant? That you cannot die? Did you really believe I couldn’t get in here?’ He paused and rose more menacingly in the smoke. ‘There shall be a time when I come back for you, and it’ll take much more than your dumb, stinking trees and your ridiculous friends to stop me. I’ll be back and then, you shall taste my wrath! Don’t you ever forget me!’

32As suddenly as he had appeared, the spirit of the Dead Pirate left the charred branch and the breeze started blowing again. Steve caught up with Alexander, and the latter, who could move again, turned towards his cousin:

33‘Do you see that dead branch? It gives me the creeps.’

34He said that as though nothing had happened or he had just awoken from a dream, which he could no longer remember. The young boy’s fear had closed the shutters on the vision. However, the shutters had only been pushed to, not fastened, and his heart was strangely beating fast in his chest.

35As he was walking back in silence with his cousin, Alexander looked up again at the pine trees. They were now smiling at him and again breathing out their sunny perfume. The slow swaying of their arm-like boughs was quiet and majestic. They were celebrating the Dead Pirate’s departure and welcoming the young boy to their realm. His heartbeat came back to normal. Alexander felt a great serenity growing on him, and a faint smile appeared on his face.

36‘Thank you, Green Giants,’ he whispered, without really knowing why he said that.

37‘What’s that?’ his cousin asked, looking at him.

38‘I said… those trees are like green giants.’

39‘Ah.’

40The Green Giants became used to the young boy, and although he never came alone, they would never fail to open the gates of their domain before him. When he came back to Salvington and its woods, Alexander no longer looked at the trees in the same way, because in the pine forest a veil had been lifted from his eyes. Now, he could see that they were truly alive, at least far more so than the Living Dead. Although the Green Giants hardly moved and their voices, the creaking of branches and the blowing of the wind through their leaves, were difficult to understand, he could feel energy and life pulsing beneath their bark, a soul which made their frames bend to him in mute conversation. Like the pines and firs, they had their own particular perfume, a message from the past, and as soon as he entered the woods, he was surrounded by it, for the humus echoed the quaint scent. He could sometimes see their eyes, which were bigger, darker and more wrinkled than the firs’, and they sometimes looked down at him, either smiling, although they did not have mouths, or encouraging him to open himself to the forest. They had felt his ability to see hidden things and were willing to develop that faculty so that he might see them and, maybe, become one of them. Whenever he entered the woods, they would call him, opening themselves to him.

41‘Awake!’ they seemed to say again and again.

42Yet Alexander seldom spoke to them directly, and his awareness of their presence was always transient. Everyday life still had too much a hold on him and he was yet too young to distinguish their forms permanently. He simply felt and was barely aware of his communion with the trees. He let himself imbibe their magic but did not seek to retain it. His visions of the Green Giants were so evanescent that, even though in his heart he knew their name, he could not tell how they had come to be called so. This mystery added to the magic of the place and he grew less afraid of its darkness, until he was not at all afraid any more. Little by little, he became less passive in apprehending the magic of the Green Giants’ world and he eventually crossed the threshold which the Dead Pirate had sullied by his presence.

43Like the other boys his age, Alexander had many heroes, whose adventures he had read, watched, listened to or even told, just as he had watched Cornelius on television and then recreated him in the woods.

44Rod was one of his heroes. He was a young lord from the Middle Ages whose parents had sent him on a quest for life, travelling all over Europe in search of knowledge and wisdom. However, injustice and cruelty were what the young lord had found, and the world proved quite different from what he had expected, when, in the safe and cosy castle of his father, he had dreamt of wandering abroad. His surprise did not hold him back for long and, far from discouraging him, the misery of the world moved him to action. He instinctively loved people and naturally sided with the poor and oppressed. He was young but bold and steadfast, which enabled him to defeat many of the Living Dead, bandits preying on the weakest, soldiers abusing their authority or lords starving people. Rod had no other choice; he could not help feeling empathy for people, and even if he had not felt so, it had early dawned on him that fighting for justice was the aim of his quest. The love and care of his fellow men and women was the wisdom which his parents had sent him to seek. Thus, he became a knight errant, like Lancelot, who had inspired him, and he became noble, not because of his blood but because of his heart. Rod was not a knight of Christendom; he was a knight of Love.

45Alexander was in awe of him, because, unlike Pip Pirrip or Oliver Twist, he had risen above himself and mastered his fate. Experience had claimed to have broken him but instead, it had led him to transcend his own existence. Besides, he had never surrendered his love for Humanity, or for animals for that matter, despite the evil which men, like a cancer, propagated all over the world. Good was like a feeble light in the darkness. Rod saw it gleaming persistently whereas Alexander saw it fading inexorably.

46There was something else in his fascination for the young lord. He was not only a hero in a story; Alexander could feel it. He knew that Rod had existed, and this was all the more obvious since his other heroes, who were not all Humanoid Chimpanzees, did not make him feel this way. Alexander became used to the feeling and stopped wondering about it, just as he had stopped wondering about the boys in the forest or the familiar settlement in the jungle.

47One night, Alexander dreamt that he was in a wooden cabin. The window, whose blinds were open, gave onto green hills bathed in sunshine. The light was so bright that the room looked dark in comparison. He could only tell that there was wood everywhere, neat varnished logs for walls, a wooden floor and panelled ceiling. His gaze was drawn outside by the light: the hills were low and the blue sky over it immense. He realised that he must have been on the second or third floor, to judge by the view from the room. He also noticed a white road winding through the light-green grass of the hills and guessed that he must have come from there. He could not remember exactly what had happened before, as often in dreams. He only had the vague feeling that he had just had an adventure and that he had had to run for his life. He had finally found refuge in the cabin. Yes, he remembered, he was back in the Middle Ages. On second thoughts, this was not a cabin but an inn, and he was in a room on its upper floor. He could actually hear the muffled voices of the innkeeper and other guests downstairs. Here, on the contrary, it was all quiet and peaceful.

48The light outside grew dim, as night was drawing near. The former brightness had been day’s last gasp, but now, it was darker outside than inside the room. The moon took over from the setting sun and cast a silver light through the window onto the wooden floor.

49Next to the window, Alexander saw three other boys sitting on a large bed with their backs against the headboard and the blanket drawn up to their waists. He remembered that he had not been on his own. They had escaped together from the dim threat which his memory was unable to recollect. They had shared the same adventure and had become friends. He realised that one of the boys was Rod. He was taken aback, as if he was now meeting him for the first time, although they had escaped together. Alexander’s eyes were fixed on his hero and he ignored his other companion.

50Rod was in his teens, about two or three years older than Alexander. He was handsome, slender but well-built, at least, compared to the others. His face and chest looked pale in the moonlight, but Alexander could remember that, in broad daylight, he was tanned. His long brown hair fell over his naked shoulders, and the tips of his ears showed through. He was sitting with his hands clasped behind his head. Alexander kept looking at him, in awe of the young knight errant, and did not speak a word. He could now distinguish Rod’s voice from those of the people downstairs, as though someone had turned up the volume or opened a door. The young lord and his comrade were laughing and congratulating themselves on the way they had outwitted their pursuers. Then, Rod looked at Alexander, who was sitting in another bed, opposite the window, as though to ask what he thought of their feat. However, Rod grew more serious:

51‘This place,’ he began, looking all around him, ‘doesn’t look familiar. In fact, I’ve never been here before. What I do know,’ he added, staring at Alexander, ‘is I was trapped, somewhere else, and this room is an antechamber between your time and mine, between your world and mine. Wizards have consecrated it, made it a door through which people can meet in dreams. See, on this wall,’ he pointed at the wall next to the door on Alexander’s right, then to the one opposite, ‘and that one: there’s one of their talismans, a Taurus in gold chalk.’

52Alexander wondered how he could have not noticed it. The design looked ancient or primitive, but the Taurus’s eyes, like two moon crescents, looked fierce.

53‘I imagine all this may seem very strange to you. I know who you are and where you come from, or when, I should say. I have felt your presence many times.’

54You are from the Middle Ages,’ Alexander ventured.

55‘Yes, and more than a millennium divides your time from mine. Yet, we can see each other and talk. Such is the power of the Wizards.’

56Alexander grew more confident and a thousand thoughts rushed through his mind. He longed to say how much he admired his hero and how glad he was to be with him and breathe the same air.

57‘I can’t believe you’re talking to me! It’s so great! But I know the power of dreams,’ he added in a quieter tone. ‘I know their magic. I know this is no mere illusion.’

58He heard himself saying those words and was relieved. He had had this feeling for a few years now but had never expressed it. Transmuting impressions into words turned his long-felt intuition into fact.

59‘Yes, I know; but we don’t have much time. The doors between our two worlds will soon open and close again. You know my parents sent me away from home to wander with my brothers all over the world. You know, too, how I discovered that most of the kings and queens were corrupt and cruel, and I was led to help their subjects when they were abused.’

60‘I do, Rod, I do,’ Alexander answered in a serious tone of voice, ‘I know your story, all of your adventures’.

61‘But I want to remind you of one in particular. You probably remember the beggar I decided to help. The plague was eating into his flesh and bones, and he was starving. Well, the old man was a Wizard! He thanked me for the bread and water I gave him, while everybody else stood at a safe distance, cursing him. He thanked me and told me that we would meet again, someday.

62I then had to part with my brothers and go on with my quest by myself. I eventually ended up in a village, partly hidden in a thick forest. It was called “Sylvan Town” or something like that. It was a very long way from my kingdom. When I left the village, I got lost in the forest. It was so vast and so dark I was never able to find my way out. I couldn’t get back to the village and find the road again. I don’t know what I’d been thinking of, trying a short cut through the forest. Anyway, one day passed, and then another. I grew thirsty and very weary, and then hunger assailed me. Berries were scarce, the mushrooms weren’t edible and the roots could not feed me. I would have tried to catch game, though I don’t like to hurt or kill, but there was none for me to catch. They would vanish into the trees or behind their trunks. Surely there was a spell on that forest, or on me.

63I finally gave up, and as I was beginning to starve, the Wizard I had helped appeared to me. I recognised him, though he now looked totally different. He was clean and his wounds had disappeared. He was no longer wearing rags but grey robes and a grey-blue pointed hat with a large drooping brim. He was also leaning on a staff and had a long beard, long and white. It was the first time I’d seen a Wizard, though I had already heard of them. There was also a white light about him. And he said to me:

64“I have fathomed your heart, young man, and although I cannot always defy the power of fate, I will try to help you. You are brave and fair, for a lord, and your heroic deeds have inspired a future knight and king, although I doubt he can match your valour. You have learnt to do without the books of law, religious or secular, the devices designed by rulers and evil magic beings to extend their domination over the hearts of all men. You have chosen not to follow the men with the red crosses and wage a war against infidels, which would be no heroism but sheer fanatic bloodlust. Instead, you have chosen to follow the path of love and selflessness, and help those in need, the destitute people of destitute times! But you will probably feel ill-requited. For if you want to survive this curse – there is indeed a curse on this part of the forest, a curse reminding people of their mortality –, you must make this wooded earth your bed and those fallen leaves your blanket. This mossy stone must become your pillow. I call on you to rest here and sleep, maybe for ages, until you find someone who can feel your presence, someone wandering alone in this part of the forest and who can dispel the curse. For its magic cannot last forever. I cannot do more. I am sorry.”

65‘I didn’t have time to say anything; he vanished as suddenly as he had appeared and I was left all alone. Then, darkness covered me like a shroud. I slept but was aware of everything going on in the forest, as if the Wizard had endowed me with part of his magic and wisdom. I could now feel the hearts of the Deer beating in my mind, and the growing of plants, leaves and trees fed my ears. The revolutions of the seasons were my dreams. In spite of the curse, the forest was calm and peaceful. Then, the curse faded but I remained imprisoned in that natural dungeon, as though I had become one with the place, the curse’s last dominion, the remnant of its empire. I never knew what its cause was or who had cast it.

66Then, more men came to the forest. The curse had faded, and so did peace, but a curse of a new kind appeared. They began to cut down more trees and kill the Deer for fun, sometimes in a very barbarous way, feeding their Dogs on them alive. They trod on my tomb but never noticed me. More than once, I felt the presence of one who could free me, but he was too far away and couldn’t find my prison. Until I felt your presence, ages after my days. You must find and help me.’

67Alexander was immediately brought back to the ‘real world’ and woke up. He was determined not to forget his dream. The following day, after school, he went to the edge of Salvington and entered the woods.

68Over the centuries, the forest had dwindled and the wilderness been mastered, as Rod had told him, but the Living Dead who had tamed the forest could not feel its magic. They could not know that, somewhere in the woods, the enchanted body of the young lord lay hidden under layers and layers of earth, humus and leaves, which had accumulated over the ages.

69With his dream in mind, Alexander returned to the shade of the trees. The Green Giants welcomed him and he at once became one with them. He could feel them pulsing in his heart, and deep inside, he knew where to find the enchanted spot. It was the first time that he had been there on his own, but he was not afraid, and the woods were no maze to him. Like a somnambulist, he instinctively followed one trail, then another, never hesitating in his choice. Rod’s tomb gleamed inside his mind like a silent beacon in the dark. Before long, he found the place where the young lord was buried. His tomb lay on the bank of the small woodland stream. The curse must indeed have been powerful for Rod not to have noticed it. Following the stream, he could have found his way back to the village or the neighbouring town.

70Alexander halted there and listened to the forest. The air under the trees and about the stream was fresh, and the smell of the place was quaint, old, wild, and mysterious. It was so calm and quiet. Sometimes, there was a sudden rustle in the bushes nearby or in the branches above, or the Green Giants would echo the high-pitched cry of some animal, but not a single beast could be seen. There were only a few Flies, Spiders and Dragonflies. The continuous rustling of dry leaves on the ground also betrayed the presence of some Beetle, maybe a Scarab, on its wilful errand. The roots of the trees protruded from the banks and looked very ancient, winding down into the drying mud and stream, which flowed very slowly.

71The boy felt as though he were the last man on Earth, or the very first one. He stood in another world, although he knew that he was still in Salvington. This world lay on his doorstep and it seemed that nobody before him had noticed it. He did not know what to do or where exactly Rod lay, so he called:

72‘Rod?’

73There was no answer, except for the echo of Alexander’s voice fading in the distance:

74‘Rod? Rod? Rod…’

75Then, there was a rustling of leaves on his left, just on the bank of the quiet stream, and from the natural tomb, the frozen corpse of the young lord rose up. Leaves, twigs and dirt fell off him as the Earth released its captive. At first, his appearance was both horrible and beautiful. He was still partly covered with mud, leaves and an entanglement of branches, twigs and plants, which not only hid his stained skin and rags, but also penetrated his flesh and muscles to become one with his skeleton. He had become the offspring of a Human Being and a plant, and looked like a Ghost, floating in the air. Then, his feet touched the ground and he regained his old features. He was again as beautiful and strong as an Elf. He wore a brown hooded tunic of coarse hemp, which covered his chest, waist and thighs, and under it a light-green shirt and close-fitting pants. His boots, which were made of the hide and hair of a dead animal, were fastened to his legs by means of slanting leather straps. Yet, there was something different in his looks. He was older than in the dream, much older than the boy who had just freed him, and he definitely looked like an Elf, tall and slender, and with pointed ears showing through his long straight hair. His features were delicate, almost feminine. His nose was straight and thin, and his brows spread above his eyes like the thin wings of some majestic bird.

76He opened his almond-shaped brown eyes and recognised the boy:

77‘Thank you my friend,’ he said with a smile, ‘thank you for believing in your dreams.’

78Then, he turned round, started running slowly as in a dream and vanished behind a tree, like a spirit of the woods. Alexander waited for a while, in case Rod came back, but as the forest remained still, he finally decided to go back home.

79As he walked in silence, his heart beat fast, for he was still amazed at what had just happened. He also had the conviction of having accomplished some great deed, something extraordinary and important, and it filled him with delight. He did not tell his parents, his sister, or his schoolmates, but kept it to himself.

80Within the same year, he happened to feel the young lord’s presence two or three times. Now free, Rod could come and go in the forest at will, but he never stayed in the same place for long. As his spirit became one with the woods, his presence once again became indistinguishable from that of the Green Giants, and Alexander was not to see him again until many years had passed. Little by little, the boy was drawn away from the forest. The magical power of the Green Giants was indeed confined to the pine forest and Salvington’s woods, and he began to sense magic elsewhere on Earth, in other forms. He instinctively followed this new trail and eventually said goodbye to the forests and their creatures.

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Référence électronique

Fabien DESSET, « Creatures of the Forests »E-rea [En ligne], 20.1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2022, consulté le 02 février 2023. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/15846 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.15846

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Auteur

Fabien DESSET

Université de Limoges
fabien.desset@unilim.fr
Fabien Desset is a lecturer at the University of Limoges. His research interests include interetextuality, transtextuality, ekphrasis and mythology. He has worked on myths and legends in the poetry of Shelley.
Fabien Desset est maître de conférences à l’Université de Limoges. Sa recherche porte sur l’intertextualité, la transtextualité, l’ekphrasis et la mythologie. Il a travaillé sur les mythes et légendes dans la poésie de Shelley.

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