Truth in the Forest

I don’t think I’ve ever told you of that Halloween night eighteen years back – a night that started off merely eerie, and ended in something like horror. I haven’t forgotten it, and by the time I’m done, neither will you. And, before you ask, yes, this story is actually true. Just because something is told like a story doesn’t mean it is only a story.

It began like this: it was October 31st, and night, and a well-intentioned neighbor knocked on our door to let us know that she thought she’d seen our horses escape. They were normally confined to the fields and sprawling forest behind our house on the edge of town, but now they were outside the fence. Or so our neighbor thought she’d seen, she couldn’t be sure.

Panicked, my mother and I frantically pulled on boots and jackets and wound scarves hastily about our necks, for there was a wind and a chill in the air. We dashed outside, but saw no horses around the perimeter of the house, and none near the road, which was the most important part. So we decided to divide and conquer. My mother grabbed a bucket of feed and stood by the barn calling, while I set off with a flashlight and my own bucket for the woods.

It could not have been a worse night for finding the quiet, shadowy beasts that horses can be. It was a full moon, to be sure, but that wind was truly raging, shaking the nearly leafless branches and bare vines into a distracting, obstructing dance. I didn’t believe in ghouls or whatever else was supposed to inhabit such environs on such a night, but that didn’t stop me from starting when, much like Little Red Riding Hood, I discovered I was not alone. Our cat, Asta, had followed me, his sooty fur blending in with the dark.

He hopped up on a fallen tree and began meowing insistently. I gave him a caress, but that did nothing. Oh, well, no pleasing cats. I set off through the woods again, calling for the horses, loudly crunching leaves underfoot. Yes, that was the sound I was hearing, just the crunching of leaves. Those leaves crunching wasn’t masking and blending with some other, scuttling noise.

I carried on for some time, finding no evidence of horses, but slowly becoming aware that I thought I heard a buzzing sound, growing louder and a bit louder by the footstep. I was sure it was just a phantom or my own imagination, maybe vibrating leaves in the wind. And, of course, Asta was there still, his meows becoming even more demanding as he began darting in front of my feet, tripping me up more than once – accidentally, I also thought.

Finally, at one spot between two cedar trees, Asta became such a nuisance that I concluded I had better pick him up and carry him the rest of my search. Had I been paying attention, I would have noticed the buzzing sound had swelled into something real and solid, and close.

I hoisted Asta to my waist, but before I could take a step forward, he yowled and scratched at my face, forcing me to drop him. He collected himself, and stood between the two trees, back arched, fur spiked. I hardly noticed. Something was moving behind him.

I lifted my flashlight, and saw – something, several giant patches of iridescence that fluttered, and many large branches, unusually hairy, which then moved and began crawling about, and numerous giant, inky pools of eyes framed by antennae the size of saplings. And the buzzing was a veritable din.

It was then that Asta opened his mouth: “See, you really shouldn’t go that way,” he said, quite calmly, for all that. “Stupid human, I’ve been trying to warn you all night…”

Oh, fine. The talking cat taking it a bit too far?

You see, when I said the story was true, what I meant was that there was truth in the story.

It wasn’t Halloween, though it might have been October. Or November. Or maybe even December. Or, let’s be real, seasons in my neck of the woods are sometimes hard to differentiate, so it might have been January or March. I don’t remember. I did check, though, and there was a full moon on Halloween night eighteen years back. But I was in grade school back then, and when this story really took place, I was in high school.

There was definitely a moon that night, though, and it was windy, and the forest made strange shapes, but we lived on only 10 acres so it was really more like a patch of trees. We found our horses, in case you were wondering. They hadn’t escaped, and I was nowhere near the hive of very normal-sized bees that at one time lived on our property. The whole thing was eerie, a bit, true, but nowhere near that fabled “horror.”

But I’ll tell you what is true, cross my heart: out cat Marble walked by my side all through that patch of woods. No, not our black cat, Asta, who we did have. It was Marble, not black like a bat, but white and gray, like the Irish cat Pangur Bán. Marble follows me nearly every time I walk through those trees, even today. I like to imagine he is some sort of guide, guarding me from something – from what, I don’t know. But I can tell a story.

The Odd Job

Unlike some professional assassins, who simply eliminated their targets in whatever generic manner was easiest, Robert prided himself on his personalized kills. Since your neighbor had stolen one of your goats a few years back, you now wanted him to choke to death while eating a poisoned goat? Robert would find a way. You had a special phrase you wanted uttered right before your uncle was stabbed in the very same rib that he stabbed your father? Robert would make it happen. 

After twenty some-odd years providing such customized assassinations, Robert was pretty sure he’d heard all the weirdest, most specific requests, from some of the most peculiar people, that he would ever hear. That was, until the day he heard the Emperor describe exactly how he wanted his mother killed.

“The Emperor” was the short nomenclature, of course; the long version was His Imperial and Royal Majesty, the Emperor of the Koruna, King of Lira, Protector of the Confederation of the Mark, Mediator of the People. After that last title was added, and the Emperor started mediating what some people thought was a few too many things, other, unofficial titles were often used, like “Dictator, “Despot,” and “Tyrant.” That was none of Robert’s concern. The man had invited him into a very swanky room in his palace, served him what he assumed was good wine, and said some very complimentary things about how Robert was just the man to “take care of” the Emperor’s mother.

“I confess I don’t especially care exactly how it all goes down in every little detail,” the Emperor admitted, casually swirling the wine in his glass. “You can use a knife, a rope, a pistol, whatever suits you. But,” the Emperor paused his swirling, and looked very intently at Robert, “this is very important: as she dies, you must tell her precisely this: ‘Today, your son has become the Lavender Rabbit.’”

Even Robert had to admit that there was a slightly awkward beat. He recovered quickly: “Oh, okay, I can do that. ‘Today, your son has become the Lavender Rabbit.’ Certainly. Your order will be carried out within the week, unless you have some other timetable in mind.”

The Emperor waved his hand. “No, within the week will do just fine. End of the month would even work, if some complication arises.”

“From what you’ve described of your mother’s guards and habits, I don’t foresee any,” Robert assured him. 

There was another long silence. Finally, the Emperor cleared his throat. “I assume you’re restraining yourself from asking just why your Emperor is reminding his mother of a lavender rabbit as he has her assassinated?”

Robert shook his head. “Not really, your Imperial Majesty. I like to assume that all my clients have their reasons. My job is just to make their vision a reality.”

The Emperor wore a highly amused expression. “Well, you’ll be returning here once the job is done for your payment. If, by that time, curiosity has overwhelmed you, as mine would if I were you, I will be happy to satisfy it.”

Robert and the Emperor parted, and Robert set off to do his job. 

The Emperor’s mother was killed within the week, just as Robert had promised, and, just as the Emperor had predicted, Robert was dying – no pun intended – to know what the Lavender Rabbit referred to, and why the Emperor had become it. It had to be some sort of in-joke. Robert thought he had seen a flash of understanding in the woman’s eyes, but death was often full of very confusing emotions for those undergoing it, so that didn’t necessarily mean anything.

The Emperor appeared very satisfied when Robert told him he was indeed quite curious as to the mysterious phrase. The Emperor sat back in his chair, and propped his legs up on the table in a very un-imperial manner. “I was quite close with my mother as a child, and to all appearances throughout adulthood – by the way, I’m sure you were surprised she was my target, and I doubt many people in this kingdom will dare suspect a thing. Anyway, she used to read to me every night, and my favorite was a little book entitled Lavender Rabbit’s Odd One Out.

“It was a delightful story of a lavender rabbit whose owner’s house was such a mess, and so he took it upon himself to clean it up. He does so by sorting all of the things into piles of like objects – dishes with dishes, blocks with blocks, and so forth – but there was always an “odd one out,” – a paintbrush with the socks, say, or a rubber ducky with the dishes. The rabbit would take that odd one out, and put it where it belonged.” The Emperor paused for a moment. Robert, practiced in being nonjudgmental, simply fingered the envelope of money he’d been given.

The Emperor continued: “I was very inspired by that rabbit. Creating order from chaos, seeing what needed to be done and doing it, molding the world to fit his vision, doing what others would not do. Finding the odd one out, the thing that no longer belonged.” He laughed. “Reading a bit too much into a children’s book, perhaps, but, you know, impressionable youth and all that. I would often joke with my mother that it was that book that made me who I am today…and doubtless you see where this is going.”

Robert nodded as if he did. 

“My mother had become the odd one out,” the Emperor explained. “She was saying things like, ‘Perhaps you shouldn’t take all the peasant’s flour, your birthday cake may be important, and I understand that you want it to be the biggest birthday cake ever, but the people do have to eat…’ That simply wouldn’t do. So, I had her sorted where she belonged. Ridiculous, I’m sure you think.”

Robert shook his head. It took all sorts to make a world.

“I appreciate you being a good sport about all this,” the Emperor said. “Now, I do have just one question before you go.” He reached forward and rang a small silver bell on the table.

“Of course,” Robert agreed.

The door opened, and three guards walked in, sabers drawn, advancing until they stood just behind him. Robert felt his palms, still clutching the cash, grow cold.

The Emperor grinned. “So tell me. Which of us here do you think is the odd one out?”

 

Inspired by Alan Baker’s lovely children’s book “Gray Rabbit’s Odd One Out,” which I highly recommend and contains no murder.

Hymns and new songs

It is not everyday that you find new or interesting takes on classic Christian hymns, and while there have been a plethora of covers in various styles (bluegrass, country, etc) -some quite good, an artist who takes a distinct stylistic road is hard to find. Enter JG Hymns, out of Edinburgh, UK. Combining instrumentation with solo male vocals, he weaves the lyrics of classic hymns to a new and unique sound. While certainly not a style aimed at congregational singing, his musical interpretation of well known songs it quite interesting and insightful, and some of his original works are quite good as well.

Just as I am, without one plea