Minstrel in the Forest
by Tala Bar
After walking all day, the Minstrel reached the forest toward evening. The weather had been fine, fairly clear with a few white clouds sailing in the blue sky; but now the clouds grew heavier and darker, as if in response to the dark lump that loomed before him in the shape of the forest that filled the horizon with no break for him to pass through.
Finbar knew this forest had a bad name. Hunting in it was usually unsuccessful; men often returned empty-handed, with scratches, bruises and stories of animals that came and went unaccountably. Any animals that were caught often tasted so strange when cooked that they were inedible. And some animals were like none anyone had seen before: strange horns and oddly multicolored hides, or scales instead of feathers. Finbar, however, being more curious than apprehensive in nature, had no intention of diverting from the direction he was going.
The trees, tall and dark, bordered the bare land the Minstrel had been traveling through; their branches stretched forward, interlacing together to create a close, hard network, making Finbar wonder how he could break into it. Feeling too tired to go about it that evening, he looked instead for a suitable spot for camping for the night.
He found a nook between two rocks jutting out of the ground, to hide him from the stirring wind; collecting a few stones, which he arranged in a circle, he gathered some dry twigs and lit a fire to warm his tired limbs. He sat by it and took out the remnants of food he had received from the landlady at his last place of visit; sipping out of his ale skin, Finbar enjoyed the peacefulness of the darkening twilight.
When he had finished eating, he wrapped himself snugly in his coat, stretched on his back with his head resting on his sack, and looked at the few stars peeping out among the heavy clouds. “Once upon a time,” he started telling himself one of his many tales, tuning it softly to put himself to sleep. Then he closed his eyes and slept.
A strange voice, something between a growl and a shout, broke into Finbar’s slumber. “Hey, Minstrel, are you asleep? Come, let me show you my kingdom. Isn’t that what you’ve come here for?”
Finbar opened his eyes. Instead of the dark night that had been moving over the earth when he lay down, he now saw gray twilight, which had created dark silhouettes of the objects around him. Among the shady figures of the trees, a dark, solid creature stood in front of him. It had the clumsy look of a bear but stood on two legs and had human-like arms. The creature’s head was heavy and it had a bear’s snout for a nose, but its eyes were deeply sunk, small but glittering in a greenish-brown tint. It was swathed in fur, which could be either skin or clothes, and it looked ageless and sexless. A shade of shiver ran down Finbar’s spine as he looked at the apparition, silently.
Rather than growl, though, the thing spoke, its voice rolling like a muffled drum. But his words were clear enough. “Come, wake up, Finbar, let me show you my forest,” it said in a commanding voice.
Finbar sat up. “Your forest?” he asked. “But who are you? What are you?”
“I am Bear, Spirit of the Forest, of course, as you must know from the myths you like to tell. I can be male by the name of Camoy, or a female by the name of Callisto, or anything else you may choose — it makes no difference. But I know you want to see the forest and get to know its inhabitants, whoever I might be.”
“Of course,” Finbar agreed good-naturedly, shaking off his apprehensions. “I’ll come with you, for I’m always happy to meet new creatures, whatever they might be.” He rose to his feet, shook the dirt off his clothes and picked up his sack. After dispersing and crushing the last embers of the fire, he followed the Bear creature, who had turned to go among the trees.
For a moment the Minstrel wondered how he would be able to break into the grid created by the trees; these, however, were nothing now but the shady forms of their earlier nature, and the two of them passed through as if the trees were nothing but gossamer. With a flutter in his heart, Finbar followed Bear into what he knew to be a threatening realm, but he decided to trust his guide to help and protect him against any evil that might be lurking in the forest.
The same gray twilight that had replaced the dark night over the earth reigned in the forest as well. The trees still stood erect around them, but they were no longer solid like the Minstrel and his guide; through their transparent silhouettes the Minstrel was able to see the whole forest full of trees, and the strange animals he had heard about from the people in the villages around the forest. These were walking about, silent like the trees, passive like them. They were passing through each other as they did through the trees, did not stop to consume either the leaves of the trees or the undergrowth between them. The carnivores among these beasts paid no attention to the prey walking among them, as if none of them were in the need of food.
“I don’t understand,” the Minstrel said, “they don’t look like real animals. Shouldn’t I be afraid of them?”
“No,” replied Bear, “because you’re right. They are not real but the spirits of the animals that lived in the forest a long time ago.”
“Ah!” Finbar exclaimed, staring in silence for a little while. There was real confusion as it appeared before his eyes, as the strange, transparent beasts moved incessantly, crossing each other’s paths, going right through each other unheedingly. He also wondered at the various strange shapes they took. Some of them were enormous, larger than anything he had seen or heard of. There were some humped animals, their backs reaching almost the top of the trees, with huge long snout emerging up above their heads; there were large catlike beasts, with large tusks sticking out under their noses; checkered, long-necked animals and tiny odd creatures mixed together, until he was not sure which was which.
“I am not sure I could ever tell about them to my audience,” he said at last to Bear, doubtfully.
“I am not sure you should, anyway,” the creature replied, “they are not like the myths and tales to usually tell them about, and they would not understand.”
“No...” agreed Finbar, slowly. “Let’s go on. Aren’t there any other things to be seen in your forest?”
Copyright © 2005 by Tala Bar