As the light of day retreated and darkness fell once more, the brave young man lay next to his fire. Contented, MacPherson gnawed on the bone of a rabbit he had snared and enjoyed the warmth of the gloves he had made from its fur. With a long stick, he turned the logs and prodded the embers, his ears tuned to the crackling glow. People would be doing the same back in the village, he supposed. He let his thoughts drift to fantasies of their fireplace gossip. News of the notorious young man’s defiance of the old druids and their jealous attempts to hold him back from his journey must have reached the people by now. He let the thought warm his bones as he slipped into a deep sleep.
Days stretched into weeks and months as MacPherson followed his compass north across the mountains and valleys. He would go for days without seeing another human being, and eventually he had not even the most nomadic of souls to share the pristine lands with. That suited the young explorer well, for he loathed other travellers. He felt acutely the romance of his isolation, and with each chasm he leapt and storm he trudged through, MacPherson revelled in his fearlessness.
Eventually, the young man found himself at the edge of a forest. It was overgrown and wild. MacPherson’s eyes moved slowly across the tangled vines and creepers, which extended out from the trees like veins without a body to hold them. Deep scars engraved the trunks and limbs around him, the marks of the battle for land which had waged for millennia. A fragrance sweeter than any he had ever known was carried to his nostrils by the wind. A soft glow flowed down his body as his muscles relaxed and his breathing slowed. The wind changed its direction and once again he was alert, as if suddenly awoken from a deep reverie. Immediately, he knelt and took the tartan bag from his back, taking care to cover his nose and mouth with his thick tunic, and thrust his arm inside. His mind darted back to the night before he had left and the wisdom that the druids had reluctantly imparted.
“No man can escape from the wild forests of the North,” warned the shrouded men.
“The sound of creaking wood slows a man’s thoughts, and the sway of the branches loosens his grip on the fears that cling to his heart. He wanders deeper. As he breathes in the scent of the forest, his pulse slows, and his steps become heavy, until a blink of an eye could last a day.”
Pulling cotton wool from the bag, MacPherson stuffed his ears until he could hear nothing. He filled his nose until he could no longer breath in the fragrance of the plants. The young man narrowed his eyes, setting his gaze straight ahead of him, and carried onwards through the forest.
At night, MacPherson hunted the silent creatures that moved through the trees like spirits and slept on the ash left by his fire. When he awoke, he would find himself covered by a blanket of veiny leaves. Their colours were exquisite in the soft morning light, an array of hues stolen from a sunset. He shook them off violently. The man delved deeper into the forest, but every day his thoughts grew clouded, his footsteps uncertain. He could taste the forest’s scent on his tongue. It seemed that wherever he stepped, vines stretched out to brush his skin. The trees began to dance before his eyes, swaying their bodies until they moved together as one. The young man felt as if he were on the bow of a ship during a mighty storm, and though the ground never moved, his feet gave way. Again, and again he fell hard against the rocking tree trunks. Only when he shut his eyes did he regain his balance. As he stumbled on blindly, the ancient trees began to sing to him as one;
“Lower thy resistance, you have nothing to fear from—"
“—us. We are friends. Why shield yourself from those who wish—"
“—you well? Oh, how glorious! Oh, what strength! A Man! A—"
“—marvel to behold! See how we worship you! See how we—"
“—love you! Stop a while. Come, let us adore you."
From deep within his heart, the young man yearned to tear away the cotton from his nose and stare endlessly into the swaying forest.
“We know thy name, MacPherson. We’ve known you since you were—"
“—but a bae in your mother’s arms. So long we’ve waited for—"
“—you to leave your wretched tribe, those ignorant fools too—"
“—naïve to recognise the greatness in a man! You hurt, my love. You hurt—"
“—because you are incomplete, because you are broken glass, a shard, —"
“—shattered and alone. Come to us, join our forest, and know devotion, and—"
“—love, and what it is to be whole.”
MacPherson’s pace slowed until he was standing motionless. The voices of the forest stroked his heart with their words. “For are they not true?” he thought. Were his tribe not wretched and naïve not to see his strength? To treat him as a wayward boy, and not the great man he could become?
The young man’s mind drifted to the years he spent living in the village, where people were born, lived and died in the same filthy mud huts, contented to be nothing. They had never held him with their words, never spoken his name with adoration. He felt the smooth skin of the vines caress his body, soothing the rage that had risen through him. It calmed him like a mother should calm, stood by him as a brother should. It offered him a home, a new tribe there, deep within the forest.
MacPherson felt his pulse slow and his thoughts settle. The fog which had filled his mind now dissipated, and as he cast his attention to the undulating trees, even the light before his eyes began to dim into a serene dusk. But a voice, far below the surface of his thoughts, vied for his attention and interrupted his tranquillity. The old druid’s words of warning floated upwards from the chasm of his subconscious.
“Only when a man succumbs to the forest, does he become part of it, and begin to see it truly come alive. He sees that it is a violent place, full of malice. He feels the tightening grasp of wooden limbs closing around him and the clutch of roots dragging him beneath the earth.”
The man opened his eyes, and the forest around him brightened once more. He looked downwards and saw that the smooth vines no longer stroked his skin, but had wrapped themselves around his legs like thick rope. Suddenly, he could sense the malice lining the forest’s words of devotion, seductive as they were. The voices grew louder, and the man began to feel the bloodlust and craving of the trees. As he tore himself from his stupor, the vines constricted, squeezing his body in their verdant clutches. His arms remained unbound, however, and drawing a knife from his tunic, MacPherson sliced at the vines and pulled himself free.
Closing his eyes to block out the swaying trees, he ran, arms outstretched as he groped blindly through the tangled foliage. Roots sprung upwards from the ground and sent him sprawling, but the young man pushed himself onwards. Stealing a glimpse through squinted eyelids, MacPherson saw a light shining through the dark density of the trees. He bounded towards it, until he tore through a mass of hanging branches and burst into the clear daylight. Without turning back to the wild forest, he drove himself forwards until the scent which had brought a dank fog over his mind began to dissipate. Overcome with exhaustion, he lowered himself down upon the arid earth beneath a crooked tree and allowed sleep to take his mind.
When he awoke, MacPherson stared out across on a flat plain, stretching as far as he could see. The ancient earth was deeply lined, scarred by the water it must have once held. The colours had faded from the sky, as if life had long since disappeared from the cursed place. He lifted himself up. Never in his young life had the air ever lain so still, without the faintest hint of a wind. As he walked, he listened to the grainy crunch of his leather boots as he ground his footprints into the dust.
The sky became dark and menacing. MacPherson felt a breeze which began at his feet, then rose to whirl around him. He raised his hand to shield his eyes from the maelstrom of dust from the ground and soon a storm descended around him. As he pushed his way through the wind, he saw cavernous openings emerging from deep within the wounded landscape. MacPherson felt the wind pull him towards the caves, but he tore himself from its grasp and fought onwards.
Furious streaks of light streamed down from the heavens, illuminating the chaos around him. A voice, sweeter than any he had ever heard floated across the air, calling for help. MacPherson stopped and squinted his eyes against the flaying dust. A woman must have been dragged into the cave, the young man thought, his stomach tightening. Up ahead, MacPherson could make out a forest of dense pine trees, a sanctuary from the raging storm. He heard the cry again, barely a whisper this time. The young man turned and allowed himself to be carried towards the dark cave where the faint voice could still be heard. As he barrelled closer, dragged by the eager wind, he searched the cave entrance for the woman whose voice he had heard, but she was nowhere to be seen. He planted his feet down into the ground to stop himself and immediately the wind lashed around him, cocooning his body.
“If there’s anyone there, please, don’t leave me!” The delicate whisper, exotic yet intimately familiar, came from inside the cave. But though the sweet voice ignited his heart with desire, he held himself back. His mind echoed once more with the words of the druids of the village.
“The caves of the North are bottomless. Men who follow the whispers of the wind are forever lost inside a labyrinth of caverns. They become living statues, encrusted in rock, devoured by the barren earth. You must fight, boy. Fight against the winds which claw at your skin and seek to drag you downwards.”
The sweet voice called out, “MacPherson, oh MacPherson, come join me in this cave. I have been for many years alone—will you not keep me company?”
The young man’s mind filled itself with wild fantasies, his eyes longed to have a glimpse of the creature who called out to his heart, and his legs threatened to betray him and surrender to the allure of the voice. But MacPherson ground his teeth together and began to push back against the gale. The whisper grew louder until it surrounded him.
“You’ve seen me in your dreams, my lovely boy. Have you not been chasing my shadow?”
“I know that you crave to escape the fate of an unremarkable life and an unlamented death. What scares you so MacPherson?“
The man lifted his hands to shield his ears from the voice, but the wind seeped between his fingers, its whisper filling his head.
“Is it passing into the great night without a story to be told? The life of a man is but a spark of light between one eternal darkness and another…but come join me, and you shall become more than a man. For your delicate skin I will fit an armour of rock. Join me, and have immortality from the brutality of Time. For she is a treacherous mistress, and will steal your beauty and turn your lovely red hair into straw.”
MacPherson hung his head. The wind had read the fears in his heart, and whispered the truth. He knew of nothing more terrifying than being forgotten amidst the endless sands of time. He dreaded the decay of old age, its humiliating decrepitation. The voice from the cave offered escape from this inevitability, a chance to steal back his youth from Time’s clutches. A chance for immortality within the cave’s impenetrable walls.
Yet, he knew his spirit would not survive within a body of cold rock. Whatever dwelled on through eternity deep within the cave would not be himself, but merely a frontage of a man, an image locked in stone. By clinging onto life, the man knew that he would lose his soul.
MacPherson pulled himself away from the voice once more. Slowly, he heaved through the lashing wind towards the safety of the pines. The storm howled with violent rage and threw itself against the him. Dirt stung his eyes and stones drew drops of blood from his sundried skin, but still he pushed onwards.
When he had reached the soaring pine trees, he ran as deep into the forest as his legs would carry him, whilst the wind chased his steps and whipped violently against the bark.
Months passed amidst the endless pines. In his dreams, MacPherson could hear the voices of the forest and the whisper of the wind. One night, MacPherson sat shivering against the thick trunk of a tree, striking his flint to start a fire. He could feel the cold sink into his bones, and paused to steady his shaking hands, before he turned his attention back to the flint with renewed violence. A howl tore through the air, and the man sat up straight against the cold bark. He had not heard life for a long time, but immediately he recognised the desperation in the howl, as one recognises one’s own face in a reflection. He raced through the pines, following the sound until he reached a deep pit sunken into the mud. An old wolf had fallen into the frozen earth, its sodden fur clinging to its body as it tried in vain to scramble up the walls.
Removing his fleece, the man lay on his stomach and hung it down so that the animal could grip it in its jaws. The wolf looked up at him with its yellow eyes, then, stretching its neck up, it bit down on the clothing. MacPherson heaved it upwards, the wolf’s body dragging against the mud. The fleece tore, and the man was thrown backwards into the snow, as the wolf hurtled back down into the pit. Throwing its head back, it howled in agony and defeat.
MacPherson picked himself up. Holding the ripped cloth in his hands, he lowered himself back down at the edge of the hole and stretched his arm down as far as he could reach. With his eyes, he pleaded with the creature, begging it to try once more. But the wolf’s head was cast downwards, and it lowered its body to the ground until its chin lay in the freezing mud.
From somewhere deep within, the young man felt anger rising through him. He ground his teeth together and snarled at the wolf, and spoke to it in its own language.
“Stand up, you fool, stand up, Wolf, and fight for something!”
The wolf replied, “Fight? Against all of nature and its inevitability? Ha! But what do you know of that, Man? You think that your cleverness makes you strong, but you are wrong. And worse, you are foolish and naïve.”
“And this is your wisdom? To lay in the frozen filth and feed the worms?” said the man.
“We all feed the worms. You believe that you are the masters of this world and that with that power, you will wrestle death into submission. But let me tell you a truth, from Wolf to Man. You wrestle with nothing but yourself. King and beggar alike still rot in the ground, and Man, who has spread through this world like a swarm of locusts, shall fertilise the earth more than any other beast. That is your legacy.”
The man pulled a stone from the mud wall and hurled it into the pit, striking the wolf on its nose
“I said stand up, you coward! You animal!” said MacPherson.
Teeth bared, the wolf pushed itself to its feet. It fought to free each of its paws from the mud in which they had sunk. Looking up at the hanging cloth, the wolf crouched low, and with the last of its energy, it leapt up and clamped its teeth around it. Slowly, the wolf rose out of the pit, until it scrambled over the edge. The wolf turned to face the MacPherson, the man who had saved its life. Its panting slowed, and after a time, it turned around and disappeared into the forest.
Onwards, he wandered. Hunger wore away his muscles and exposed his bones. Ragged clothing covered MacPherson’s gaunt frame and his torn lips had not tasted water for too long. Caped in despair, the man seemed to have shed his youth like snake skin and walked without focus in his dark sunken eyes. He chewed the bitter pine needles that carpeted the ground, and they scratched inside his empty stomach.
One morning the young man awoke suddenly. Through the pine trees, a strange sound reached his ears. MacPherson rose upon his frail legs and started to walk towards it, ignoring the crunch of the pine needles underfoot. As he grew closer, the noise grew into a low hiss, which soon became a vociferous roar. Finally, he emerged at a sheer rock face, from which a great waterfall plummeted. He stood beneath an opening in the forest canopy, and felt sunlight drench his skin for the first time in many months.
He rushed towards the water, but as he reached down to cup the liquid, a glint of light caught his eye. Peering up at the waterfall, he saw that the water ran so cold that the drops turned to icicles as they fell, stabbing the pool below. His throat screamed for water, but a faded memory resurfaced, a warning from the old druids whose words had saved his life more than once.
“Beware the crashing waterfalls of the North. For they carry water so cool that once past a man’s lips, it freezes his tongue, making his words icy and cold. It freezes his stomach so that he can no longer feel the warmth of life’s pleasures. It courses through his veins and encases his heart in ice, so that it can no longer swell with love, nor give itself away.”
The young man looked down into the pool. The face staring back at him had aged crudely. MacPherson leaned closer, staring deeper into his own eyes. He saw cruelty and spite in the lines of his face, and lips pursed with bitterness. The reflection rippled outwards, revealing the home he had left behind. Houses were built and abandoned, children laughed and grew, women loved, and life continued. He had neither touched, nor broken any hearts, and he had left no minds troubled by the absence of a foolish boy who fancied himself an explorer. The water rippled back from the edges of the pool until it reached his reflection, and the ghostly village faded, leaving MacPherson to stare into his own malevolent eyes once more.
The forlorn figure sunk down to the ground. Despondency crept over his body, switching off his senses until all he could hear was the shrill roar of the falling daggers. The sound quieted as he closed his eyes, until it was little more than a hiss. It slithered inside his ear and spoke to his soul.
“Hello, my brother. Long you have journeyed through the wild north and now, here you are. My waters course through this earth. I have felt every footstep you have taken. I know the sorrow in your heart, MacPherson; it crushes me as if it were my own. You are alone in this world, truly so, brother. But through me, you can relinquish your suffering. I can take away the pain that you have held tight to your chest for so long. My home is nirvana; it is serenity. Let me take you there.”
MacPherson stared down into the sapphire pool and in his mind, imagined the cool elixir passing his dilapidated lips and flowing into his body. The water would carry away the broken pieces of himself, the suffering and the fear which had clung to his worried mind since he had been a boy. He craved to release it into the cool air, to detach himself from the feelings which strangled him, which he fought so hard and yet could not escape. The thought of his own decrepit hut in the village floated through his mind. He had built it far from the homes of the villagers to shield his pride, and there he had lived, without family or companionship. As a boy he had wandered through the cracks of the village, picking up the scraps of food and gifts which pity earnt him. His mouth watered to drink from the pool once more.
Yet, despite the longing he felt, MacPherson held himself still. For though the water would bring him escape, never again would he feel the warmth of a fire as it heats his fingertips, or of a starry night sky. He would never again leap through the air from high above and icy loch, and plummet below into the quiet depths. The man felt anew the freedom he had found within the forests and the open valleys, and the grand peaks which erupted from the earth. Sensations ran like ants over his skin. The price of serenity would be the surrender of his soul.
The man closed his eyes and let his thoughts, wild and frantic, run their course until his mind was emptied. He listened to his chest beat its steady rhythm. His body was tired, and he knew that he could expect little more of it. But still his heart beat. Still his soul sung life’s melody into his ears.
MacPherson stood and turned away from the glistening pool. He looked north and carried onwards. He did not turn back, until silence filled the air once more.
Snow fell and coated the forest in soft white skin. At night, MacPherson would wrap the remnants of his ragged layers around him and cradle his weary body in his arms. One morning, he awoke to find a family of mice had made a home of his tartan bag and were nestled inside. Kindness warmed his bony chest, and he left the bag behind. But though he no longer had anything to carry, still his legs trembled with weakness. He knew he would not be much longer on his great journey.
One night, MacPherson sat against an old pine, bent over to shield him from the snow. Shivering, he struck his flint against a meagre pile of kindling to light his fire. As he watched the sparks ignite and rescind, he began to feel a warm glow in the pit of his stomach. He lay down his flint and lifted his head to stare up at the pine trees surrounding him, illuminated by the moonlight painted on the bark, and in that moment, he knew that he would die. It had been so long since he had left the village, but he now could remember the laughter of the people, and he smiled to himself. The young man felt his eyes grow heavy and his breathing slowed. It was a beautiful night.
He remembered the wolf whose struggle he had stumbled across in the forest, and what it had said about Man’s vain attempts to wrestle death into submission. He chuckled, finally understanding its meaning. Strange, he thought, but death does not carry the same fear as it did that day.
He closed his eyes and tuned his ears to the forest. Each sound seemed magnified, and he could hear the minute snap of pine needles as they were uprooted from their branches by the wind. He focused more deeply, eager to hear the world around him. Snowflakes, falling from the sky, burst against the white earth as if the ground were made of tin. The sound grew louder, as if closing in on him. His skin became brittle metal that the snowflakes tapped like fingertips. His mind slipped away, as he let go of the rhythm of the world.
Cold, deep silence. The man fell back below the surface of the loch, watching the vague shimmering of light on the surface. He watched the bubbles drift out from between his lips and rise to the surface. They began to burst around him, each time disturbing the still water. The shocks grew, until each burst shook his entire body. Unable to move, he watched as one gigantic bubble swelled from his mouth and rose to his face.
The explosion rocked his head violently, and immediately the smells of the forest flowed back into MacPherson’s nostrils. Dirt and leaves swept through his hair. The earth seemed to flow like a river beneath him, and he felt stones draw across his back. Once more he felt an explosion of pain as his head knocked against something hard. MacPherson’s eyes cracked open. He felt a sharp vice clamped around his boot, dragging him along the ground. His eyes peered upwards unfocused, and colours filled his vision. The brown bark of the pine trees gradually faded, replaced by myriad shades of green. Slowly, his eyes focused on the verdant jungle which had emerged around him. With a great deal of effort, he lifted his head to see the old wolf from the pit, dragging his shattered body along by the heal of his boot.
Eventually they stopped, and the wolf panted for breath. The snow was gone, melted into the soggy earth. Patiently, the wolf sat and waited for him to pick himself up. MacPherson willed strength into his numb limbs, and they burnt as he felt blood trickle back into them. When finally, he pushed himself up, he saw that before him was a dense wall of tangled leaves and vines. Behind it, he could hear the soft sound of birdsong.
MacPherson brought himself to his feet and stumbled towards the wall. Moisture filled the air and beads of sweat began to roll down the man’s forehead. He pushed his fingers between the thick vines and began to pry them apart. Light streamed through the hole, and hot, vaporous heat. With what strength he had left, MacPherson tore at the hole until it was wide enough to push his thin body through. He paused, turning back to the old wolf whose teeth marks still imprinted his mangled leather boot, but it had disappeared once more into the jungle.
As he emerged from the hole, hundreds of exotic birds burst into the sky and filled it with musical cries. MacPherson stood up and felt the warmth of the air sooth his skin. Ahead of him, there lay a cloud of misty vapour, from which he could feel the heat radiate. He staggered towards it. Out of the opaque air, a blue lagoon emerged. Bubbles burst on the surface of the water as it ran downstream, before overflowing into a pool below it. MacPherson’s eyes widened in disbelief as he looked out at an endless series of lagoons, cascading down into one another, steadily descending into the earth. He felt the warmth of the water as he approached its edge. His frozen bones began to thaw as he waded into the lagoon, the water wrapping around his body. He felt his cracked skin being soothed by the soft current, and the dirt and drudgery which layered him being slowly washed away.
When his head emerged from the surface, the sound of his heart beat heavily in his ears. He felt a sudden brush against his leg, and when he looked down, the man saw that fish filled the water, swimming close enough to reach out and grab. He turned his eyes upstream and saw trees lining the lagoon. Their branches strained under the weight of fruit, of colours as diverse as the feathers of the birds which flew overhead. Unable to speak, MacPherson’s eyes erupted with tears, which fell into the water above the heads of passing fish. He tore the few remaining rags of clothing from his body and let them drift away.
Years floated by, drifting down the deep blue steps of the lagoon. With them, they carried the young man’s fears and the aches of the past. He lived in his naked moments. He watched the sun race across the sky, and at night, green and blue light trailed a path between the stars. He found joy in every exquisitely coloured bird, whose songs were unique and beautiful, even though he did not know their names. When he became an old man, he forgot even his own name, as an adolescent lets go of his childhood toys.
One day, the man rested upon the ground. He remembered the adventures he had dreamt of as a child, and the life he had strained to break free of as a youth. Once more, he felt the crackle of his campfire against his skin and the adoration of a thousand trees. He heard the seductive whisper of the cavernous wind and remembered the promises of the northern waters. With a smile, he thanked them for his journey and peacefully, as the earth and water had nourished him, he returned to the earth, and nourished the forest.