Tommy walks. The air thins, the trees shorten. But the skinny path remains, winding up the mountain. Night falls and there is a sliver of crescent moonlight. His eyes adjust to the dark and he wanders on, shivering, with only a light jacket to prevent freezing. He’s not angry anymore. He’s not sad. He’s not happy. He’s just walking. Forgetting. Finally exhausted, he piles some leaves against a fallen tree to form a pillow and falls into deep sleep.
By morning, he can’t ignore the hunger cramps. Now he can’t ignore the thoughts that flood in like angry skin quivering over the cramps. Where am I? What the hell am I going to do? How far have I walked already? He thinks his town must be a mountain or two behind. The path has flattened out to a high plateau. The ground is frosty and he continues to shiver. Nothing to do but walk on. The path remains.
At least the air warms up. Spring returns to the plateau, albeit a mountain spring, barely out of winter’s grasp. He feels around for the paper in his pocket and pulls out Scuffy again. He’s surprised the image still packs an emotional wallop. It’s like a bottomless font of… something. Some emotional pull that is the antithesis of the clown. The clown. Thinking of that bastard sends a chill down his spine. At the same time he’s wracked with a wave of hysterical laughter. It rings through his head, too crisp, too clear, almost blank. Is it him or the clown? It’s the fucking clown, what’s that bastard doing here? Then he realizes… it was the clown that made him attack in the math room. It was that dark alliance under duress. He was supposed to kill or die. He shudders.
But the chill passes. He resumes walking. Because it was the forest that saved him. The forest is a good place, free from the clown and the blank bastard. It’s full. And Scuffy. Scuffy will keep him safe. He looks down at the picture and sees it for what it is. A talisman. He smiles. Then, with a jolt, he thinks of his dad – the association from printed inkjet image to office computer to father. A cramp of grief and guilt.
But my parents will be alright, Tommy thinks. They’ll do better without their psycho son around to shame them. And they always believed those kids at school who said I was a Satanist. They never understood about the inner light. He looks down at the paper. Scuffy is the same as always, fresh tugboat face, determined. It’s like the picture is beaming a ray of gnostic certainty into his head. He’s on the right path. Like the apostle to the messiah. He belongs in Scuffy’s World. He snaps his fingers. The Scuffy thing is being fleshed out but this is just the start. Scuffy’s world, Tommy realizes, is a land of many streams and rivers. Talking animals aplenty. Edible pinecones. Scuffy will show him the way.
Tommy flashes back to Mario Kart, not his favourite Nintendo game by any means but the most oft-played. There’ll be no more Mario Kart divination.
"Maybe I can use Scuffy in the same way," he says and discovers with amusement that he’s talking aloud. Does it matter here?
There is a darting motion in his left peripheral and a high-pitched squeak. Tommy whips his head in that direction seeing a few brambles swing to and fro. His heart races. Dead silence. Except was that a giggle trailing after the squeak? How could that be? Could it be – no, not the clown!
No, not the clown, too external. An animal that sounds like a laughing human? But what animal sounds like that? Now he wishes he’d paid more attention in school – zoology had always bored him. He takes in a paranoid panorama of the path, seeing nothing but trees, hearing nothing but birds.
Reality check, he tells himself. This is the fucking forest and there’s no people around for miles – but there are probably predators. Just what the hell’s your plan now?
He’s frozen on the path. There is an overwhelming urge to head back home. But the horror of this idea overshadows the dread of his current situation. What would he do back there? A grating fight-or-flight paralysis. The silence continues and he begins to feel foolish. "Probably just a squirrel I scared," he says, speaking aloud again to assert his existential rights. "Little chipmunky bastards – they could sound like laughter."
But the thought finally sinks in: It looked like a little person. But that was just his peripheral impression. Whatever it was, it was long gone when he got his head turned around. He tries to force the paranoid thoughts away. "Am I walking this path or not?" It’s a good path and a good forest. And Scuffy’s with him. Probably just a goddamn squirrel. He walks on, stealing nervous glances left and right.
The paranoia ebbs away, eclipsed by the hunger. The cramps. Scuffy will show him the way. But what’s he going to eat? He can’t eat Scuffy. And he doesn’t think the pinecones here are very nutritious. "I’m no hunter," he says. "Or what is it they do in the forest – trap? I’m no trapper eith-"
That noise again, the squeal, the laugh, definitely a laugh this time and motion to the left of the path. Tommy gasps, turns, and sees something dart behind a tree. Larger than a squirrel. Dead silence again like the birds are playing games with him.
Fuck, get out of here! he screams at himself but this part of him is in competition with another part. This part has stepped in and expressed an unambiguous urge to charge off in pursuit of the mysterious creature that is, without a doubt, some kind of little person. Tommy is appalled at this second self. He’s ready to go back home this time but he knows he can’t. His muscles twitch stupidly. Another laugh from the forest: soft, earthy, not the laser-laugh of the clown. There’s something about it, something he likes. Like it belongs in Scuffy’s world, but… the neophobic self will not be dragged into this adventure, the laughter sounds like death, a beckoning claw. One thing both selves can agree on is to consult Scuffy.
"What would Scuffy do?" Tommy says in a cracked whisper. Clumsily, he pulls out the picture and stares. And knows. He’d sail on. The words are right in his head. They sound like something he’d say but he’s not sure they’re his. Then: Scuffy’s got a date with the fairies. It’s clear in his head but he knows it’s not him. It’s part of the gnosis, the cryptic truths of the forest. Before he can allow himself to drown in dread he takes a leap to the left and into the bush, unable to believe his action.
The creature jumps out from an impossibly high position in the tree, jostling pine foliage from the canopy above and catching a lower branch. It’s a dark blurred figure but humanoid. Tommy runs toward it as it drops to the ground. What’s he going for? He doesn’t know but knows he must. The split is gone, Tommy is unified in pursuit, intuitive insanity. But there is no sane here.
The creature runs away but it’s more of a skip. It covers incredible distances with each hop, nimbly avoiding the thicker bush and ducking under fallen trees. Tommy awkwardly chugs through the thickets, panting to keep up. The object of his pursuit is a green blur, barely a foot tall, moving with an improbable gait. The closer he gets, the greater his desire to catch up – and do what?
"Stop!" Tommy commands. The creature turns around. Tommy freezes, bracing for a shock – any shock. The shock that arrives is coming face to face with what he thinks of as the elf.
"Ah, you caught me," it says. "Fair and square." It is most definitely female, very short, slender, dressed in bark and adorned with feathers. Her skin is nearly white with purple undertones and her hair hangs in curly peach-colored locks. Fine-feathered wings extend from her back. Her pointed ears are long, extending above the top of her head. Her expression is impossible to read – a quasi-smile behind which lies continental mysteries. Tommy gawks wide-eyed and the creature stares back with that enigmatic look. Her eyes blink once. Tommy laughs involuntarily. He sounds crazy to himself.
"Who… w- what… are you?" he finally mumbles, afraid to disturb the silence but unable to help himself.
"Well, I am what you would call a wood sprite," the creature replies. Its voice is soft but clear. Its accent is nothing Tommy could have expected – non-European. Something about it sounds Neolithic. He doesn’t know how he could make that association but it’s there nonetheless. More gnosis?
"No I am wood," she says and giggles. "Well, of the wood. Haha, I am not really a jokester."
Tommy smiles, feeling more insane by the second.
"But I am a sprite. My name is Candie."
"No way!" Tommy says, smile growing, sanity losing relevance.
"Yes, that is what I am called. I like my name." Tommy notices that a pipe-like instrument is slung on Candie’s back. As if his thought is a prompt, Candie unslings the pipe and begins to play. The tone is soft and piercing simultaneously, like her voice. It sounds a little like a clarinet. Seconds later Tommy recognizes the melody as one of the short "character themes" that accompany an animated sprite (!) after a successful race. But he can’t remember which one.
"Hey, that’s Mario Kart!"
"Is it?" asks Candie, withdrawing her lips from the pipe. "It was in my head. I never know where my melodies come from."
"Yeah!" Tommy laughs, noticing his laugh is beginning to sound just like the giggling sprite. He looks around the forest with bulging eyes. Somehow everything is new, freshly-connoted, hyper-relevant, down to the last pine needle. His eyes return to the sprite, still there, looking back. He feels like a sponge, human absorption. "Mario Kart," he mutters through a goofy grin.
Tommy flashes back to the game. Now he remembers with astounding clarity a divinational race long forgotten. It was three years ago at least. It was about running away. It was about whether he should say "fuck you" to that shitty society and head for the hills, the forest. And how successful that choice would be.
"Shit I’m remembering, I divined this runaway long ago," Tommy says. "But what were the results?"
"You’re a diviner?" asks the sprite and Tommy giggles again. The sprite joins in, harmoniously and Tommy explodes into a belly laugh. The sprite giggles up to her extreme high register and matches the rhythm of Tommy’s hearty laugh. Tommy falls silent, gaping in astonishment.
"So you cast your Mario Kart," the sprite says. "Whatever that is. What did it say?"
Tommy thinks, trying to regain access to the surprisingly clear memory. But his mind is a thicket of confusing hallucination. He closes his eyes and sees fractal pixies dancing into each other’s writhing bodies, hears a cacophony of flutes. The sprite starts playing the character melody on her pipe again and suddenly the information is there, solid like gnosis. The five races unfold in a microsecond, the character theme loops.
"It’s the Princess!" Tommy says. "That theme you’re placing, it’s her theme. I remember from Vanilla Lake 2, that bitch of a track, but I beat it. I thought I had to choose the Princess to properly divine, even though her steering sucks. It had to be a radical departure if I was preparing to abandon my whole culture, my whole fucking race! I made a record time on Vanilla Lake 2. But… didn’t I fall off Rainbow Road and finish last by the end of it? So what awaits for me?"
"I can not say, I am only a wood sprite," Candie says. "But at least I helped your memory."
"Well maybe I’ll transcend Mario Kart," Tommy says.
"If you have made the decision to cast a thing, then it is not something you may transcend," the sprite says with stern conviction.
"I guess not," Tommy says. "But how is it that you know the Princess theme? It’s from a video game!"
"Who is to say the creator of the game did not learn it from me?"
"Been to Japan?"
"I do not know but I have been many places my friend." Tommy smiles at the word "friend". He’s going to need some here. And to think he’d been so paranoid at the first sight of the sprite. Almost ready to turn tail and run, back to the vengeful mob.
"Do you know what a video game is?" Tommy asks.
"I may have heard of such a thing," replies Candie. "I may not have. But I can tell you I have most certainly heard of the Princess. We all have. Only she may conjure the fairies and sprites. You made the right choice with your Mario Kart. You surely are a diviner of some power."
"Really?" Tommy feels ridiculously flattered. The sprite is silent, waiting. "Yes, I guess you’re right. I sort of thought so all along, even though there were doubts I never admitted, even to myself. So now I’m here."
"And so am I," says the sprite. "I suppose you are the Princess now." She plays a cadence on her pipe and Tommy giggles at the musical punctuation. Candie’s cadence. Mischievously, she begins looping the Princess theme again, adding little flourishes.
"I’m the Princess?" Tommy asks. "Well Mario is dead. He ranked out back in the math room but he went out with a bang. So yeah. I’m the Princess."
"You just haven’t made it physical yet. But you will."
"What the hell does that mean?" Tommy asks.
"What do you know?"
"Oh a little of this and a little of that," Candie says, expression lacking the coyness of her comment.
"So what is it you want, Candie?" Tommy asks.
"The question is, what do you want? Why are you here?"
"I ran away. I have no home. I don’t know what to do but I need to keep going. Going is good enough. But I need to be able to survive. I’m hungry. What I need is a guide."
Candie smiles and nods, coyness finally evident.
"We sprites do not make a habit of helping humans and rarely play such a role. When we meet there is always a special deal to be made. That is why we have crossed paths. We will make exceptions in special cases. Are you special?"
"Special?" Tommy says. "I’m a fingersnapper!" He’d never dubbed himself thus before but he feels this is as good an identity as any.
"Then what do you have to offer?"
"Offer?" Tommy says. "Jeez." Well he damn well isn’t going to offer any fingersnapping wish to this sprite. He goes through his pockets again. There is the quarter. He holds it up to the sprite. Candie bursts out infectious laughter, Tommy giggles in spite of himself.
"I’ve no use for metal," she says. "You humans and your metal."
"Well," Tommy says, reluctantly grabbing the paper from his other pocket. But Scuffy?
"All I have is...." He trails off. No, he can’t trade Scuffy, his talisman, his protection against the clown and all he has left of his life. But he holds up the paper, image out, and is shocked to see Candie react just as he had that day in his grandma’s bedroom. Tears stream from her face.
"Awwwww," she croons in a sweet spritely moan, "Oh, what an adorable little boat. So you are special."
"But…" Tommy stammers. "Scuffy is special too. Too special. He’s mine. I found him. I can’t give him away."
Candie’s face pallors with dejection. "I guess I shall be off then," she says and leaps into the air. In a flash she is well above Tommy’s head, wings working furiously. She soars into the trees and out of sight. Tommy stands, frozen, indecisive, stammering and spasming like an epileptic. He hears a howl, a coyote? A wolf? A creature, one less friendly than the sprite? Is that a growl? The sky seems to darken.
"Come back!" Tommy shouts. This can’t be for nothing. "Let’s make a deal!" Ten seconds of appalling silence, the birds in suspense. Then, with a rush of joy, Tommy hears the flutter in the foliage, the return of the sprite, settling slyly back in front of him. She appears out of breath – apparently the disappearing act hadn’t been easy to pull off. Candie looks back, blinks twice.
"Here," Tommy says and hands the folded paper to the sprite. A smile slowly spreads on her tiny face and she grabs it with both arms. Upon letting go of the paper Tommy feel a chill. For a moment he feels the clown is back but this passes.
"Thank you," Candie says. Even folded, the picture is half her size but she holds it steady. "We are more partial to the treasures of the forest but once in a great while something like this comes along. This is a mighty talisman and we have need for such."
"Do you think I’ll still be able to evade the clown?" Tommy pouts.
"I know nothing of the clown. But we promise you safe passage through the forest. You will be alright with us."
Tommy smiles, angst fading. Thank God, the deal is done. No fingersnapping required.
"And what are you called?" asks the sprite. Ah, now we’re getting social, Tommy thinks.
"Tom," he says. It’s time for a change.
"May I call you Tomilin?"
"Sure Candy. Can I call you Candy?"
Candie giggles. "You may."
Candie tells Tommy to stay put while she disappears back into the forest. She emerges half an hour later, hoisting a large wooden bowl above her head. "The largest we could find," she says. It fits neatly in Tommy’s palm. The bowl is filled with raw purple mushroom caps in a thin sauce of some kind. Tommy reaches a hand inside, then pauses.
"They aren’t hallucinogenic are they? Or poisonous?"
"I am alive, am I not?" Tommy cracks a smile. Nothing to do but dig in. The mushrooms have an odd taste as wild mushrooms tend to, but the watery sauce sweetens them up. "I could get used to this," Tommy says through a mouthful.
"Good," Candie replies. "Because there is little else on the menu." And so begins the first of many lessons on the forest. Candie explains that the wood sprites are not carnivores but neither will they allow themselves to be preyed upon. They have evasion down to a science. They have stockpiles of human food but Tommy opts for the mushroom meal. When in Rome.
Candie springs back into the forest with the bowl and returns with a refill. After the second bowl, Tommy is surprisingly full and ready to move on. He starts toward the path but Candie gestures perpendicular. "You’re going the wrong way," she laughs.
Tommy chuckles at himself and follows Candie through what seems to be an arbitrary zigzagging bushwhack. But after an hour, Tommy realizes they aren’t really whacking any bush, despite the thickness of the surrounding foliage. It is in fact an incredibly subtle path that no human would recognize, integrated with perfect economy and minimal intrusion. It goes with the grain. Has it been cut through? Or is it a fractal vein that grew with the forest itself? Must be a sprite thing, Tommy thinks. Wood gnosis.
Another hour passes, though time’s relevance is bleeding into the soily ground. Tommy and the sprite stop to drink from a creek. Tommy has a moment of parasite paranoia, but the first sip is so tasty he soon forgets his fears. Candie stands precariously on a jagged rock and catches splashes of the rapids with her tongue. So fresh, so pure. Tommy notices her midriff above the feathered bark skirt and is moved to comment:
"You’re kind of cute, Candy. Fuck that, you’re gorgeous. If you weren’t so damn small…" Candie stops drinking and shoots him a look of blatant disgust. Tommy’s heart sinks.
"Sorry, it’s just… you turn me on. I’ve never said that to a girl before you know. Or a sprite." An enigmatic smile greets this confession. At least his comment wasn’t so offensive as to break the deal.
"Is that like bestiality to you?" he asks. "I’m no beast. At least not anymore. I stabbed someone who deserved it but I left that life behind. I’m no fighter, that’s why I joined the forest. This is my place I think. I think Scuffy will guide me – or, well you said you’ll guide me now. I think maybe Scuffy led me to you. Too bad I can’t have him though, he’s all I had left from the old world. A link worth preserving."
"But he’s of the new world," Candie says, water dribbling down her chin. "Our world – you know that." Foam bubbles pop at the corner of her mouth.
"Yeah, maybe he belongs with you," Tommy says. "It’s just – it’s beyond sentimental value. I can’t explain – I don’t know what I’m talking about really, I feel awash in mystery. I’m like a leaf in a forest."
"You are a man in the forest," Candie says. "Even stranger. This forest is enchanted. Humans will never encroach here."
"No one ever called me a man before," Tommy says, giddy. "I was always a boy, and a girly boy at that."
Candy giggles, arches her back. Her navel draws Tommy’s eye, framed by the peach-colored locks that spill behind her back. Oh God, why does she have to be so small? he thinks. She’s perfect for me! Then he bursts out laughing at the irony that he is finally man enough for his love interest. Only too much so. Even flaccid. Guess I’m lucky I can communicate with anyone at all in this forest. But now I’m hard again, fuck. Gonna have to bust a nut or go crazy. What would Candy think of that? Would it turn her on? Do wood sprites get it on?
"Candy, I have to step into the forest. I’ll be back in about five minutes, kay?"
"Okay," Candie says and catches more foam on her tongue. Tommy records the image before stepping off.
Tommy and Candie have been walking for some time. Tommy doesn’t care to speculate how long. He’s eaten many bowls of mushrooms and taken many lessons from the forest but it seems there are an infinite amount left to learn. A question occurs to him and he’s surprised it’s taken this long: "How is it that you know English?"
"I picked it up," she answers. "I told you, I have been many places. You English speakers seem to get around too."
"Round round get around, I get around," Tommy half-sings, half-cackles. Candie grabs her pipe and picks up the melody where Tommy left off as he knew she would. "How do you do that?" he asks.
"I have a lot of melodies in my head," she says. "We wood sprites are the barkivists of the forest. What you would call ‘archivists’."
"You say tomato and I say tomahto."
"You see trees are not meant to be pulped. Bark is what they offer for writing aid. And aid us it does. We are creatures of long memories. So I heard you talking and I recognized your tongue."
"Wow. You sprites are pretty smart, huh?"
"Some people say that. But that is a human standard."
Tommy wanders, losing track of time, losing himself in a gradually dilating coniferous glow. It seems that with every step he feels more content with his journey and more at home in the woods. His time is occupied with Candie’s lessons. He learns the sprite names for the plants and trees and animals and insects, and every day there is a new species, one that had been right under his nose, unnoticed. With the name comes the novelty of seeing this new form of life pop out as figure on background, another universe opens up, the riches multiply. Somehow he is retaining it all in his head. Maybe that’s what it is to be a sprite, enhanced sensory awareness.
Tommy is also learning about natural phenomena never noticed by humans with their much hyped cerebral-cortex and scientific instruments: patterns, the language of the trees and the breeze, a beautiful song. It’s all been catalogued by the sprites, documented on bark scrolls in a complicated pictographic language. The barkivists have probed deep into their surroundings, or the surroundings probed deep into them. They document and divine. "What you would call extrapolation," Candie says.
Divinely simple on the surface, the forest’s complexity grows more apparent with each lesson, cryptic purpose popping to the front of perception and no words to describe, only melodies. Tommy comes to see that each tree has a personality, some more interesting than any of the people he remembers. Each tree is a life and a history and a future and you can divine with the trees and the breeze. And with Candie’s melody overtop, it is a glorious symphony, localized omniscience, the game of playing the future, just for the drama and melodic joy of it, tree cinema. Such is the past-time of the wood sprites.
Months pass, then years. Candie helps him construct astonishingly cozy shelters, insulated, to ride out the winters in comfort. The menu varies little. Nearly always mushrooms, types varying with the seasons. But as years pass, Tommy comes to appreciate a range of flavor in this seasonal spectrum that would put his abandoned society’s synthetic palate to shame. Sometimes exotic berries make it into the wooden bowls and even, on a nostalgic spring day – licorice root.
Sometimes Candie leaves for days at a time to interact with her sprite community but she always finds him again to redirect him toward another fractal forest vein. When allowed to wander on his own, he often blunders off the subtle paths and ends up whacking bush but the more he’s allowed to roam on his own, the better his skills at finding the veins become.
There are rare sightings of other sprites, always peripheral. They never seem to regard Tommy with much interest. But one exceptional day Candie lets Tommy watch her fuck her spritelover.
"Do not tell Davorin! He will kill me!" Candie says. "But you are my friend and I know your needs. I will let you watch."
Candie directs the barely-contained Tommy to the perfect hiding place, a rockslide beside a pond. Davorin, a slightly more masculine looking sprite settles on the shore with an aura of eros and mounts Candie’s naked, bark-stripped body. Before long Candie is directing the action and has maneuvered herself on top. By this time, Tommy is bushwhacking furiously and damned if it isn’t the best he’s ever had. Candie even whispers (while fucking!) "Go slow." Davorin thinks she’s talking to him but Candie is telling Tommy not to blow it too soon. It’s good advise because the best part of the show is to come – so to speak. Sprite sex, an extra-curricular activity but a much appreciated lesson. It’s better than any porn, maybe better than the real thing although he’d never know.
Why can’t I be a sprite? Tommy thinks while mopping up with a leaf. Why am I cursed with humanity? But if Candie were here and not cuddling up, post coital, with Davorin, she would play his purpose on her pipe and Tommy would be content with his humanity.