Continuing our celebration of the life and works of Robert Holdstock, here follows an extract from his World Fantasy Award-winning masterpiece, Mythago Wood.
Edward Wynne-Jones, Esq.
15 College Road
You must come back to the Lodge. Please don’t delay for even an hour! I have discovered a fourth pathway into the deeper zones of the wood. The brook itself. So obvious now, a water track! It leads directly through the outer ash vortex, beyond the spiral track and the Stone Falls. I believe it could be used to enter the heartwoods themselves. But time, always time!
I have found a people called the shamiga. They live beyond the Stone Falls. They guard the fords on the river, but to my great satisfaction they are willing story-tellers, which they call ‘life-speaking’. The life-speaker herself is a young girl who paints her face quite green, and tells all stories with her eyes closed so that the smiles or frowns of those who listen cannot effect a ‘shape-change’ upon the characters within the story. I heard much from her, but most important of all was a fragment of what can only be Guiwenneth’s tale. It is a pre-Celtic version of the myth, but I am convinced that it relates to the girl. What I managed to understand of it goes thus:
‘One afternoon, having killed a stag with eight tines, a boar twice the height of a man, and cured four villages of bad manners, Mogoch, a chieftain, sat down by the shore to rest. He was so mighty in deed and build that his head was half-covered by clouds. He spread his feet out in the sea at the bottom of the cliffs to cool. Then he lay back and watched a meeting take place between two sisters upon his belly.
‘The sisters were twins, equally beautiful, equally sweet of tongue, and skilled with the harp. One sister, however, had married the warlord of a great tribe, and had then found herself to be barren. Her complexion had become as sour as milk left too long in the sun. The other sister had married an exiled warrior, whose name was Peregu. Peregu held his camp in the deep gorges and deadwoods of the far forest, but came to his lover as a nightbird. Now she had produced his child, which was a girl, but because of the exile of Peregu, her sour-faced sister and an army had come to claim the infant.
‘A great argument occurred, and there were several clashes of arms. The lover of Peregu had not even named the child when her sister snatched the tiny bundle in its heavy cloth wrappings and raised it above her head, intending to name it herself.
‘But the sky darkened as ten magpies appeared. These were Peregu and his nine sword-kin, changed by forest magic. Peregu swooped and caught his child in his claws, and flew upwards, but a marksman used slingshot to bring him down. The child fell, but the other birds caught her and carried her away. Thus she was named Hurfathna, which means “the girl raised by magpies”.
‘Mogoch, the chieftain, watched all this with amusement, but had respect for the dead Peregu. He picked up the tiny bird and shook the human form back into it. But he was afraid that he would crush whole villages if he prodded out a grave in the country with his finger. So Mogoch popped the dead exile into his mouth and twisted out a tooth to stand as a monument. In this way Peregu was buried beneath a tall white stone, in a valley which breathes.’
There can be no doubt that this is an early form of Guiwenneth’s tale, and I think you can see why I’m excited. The last time the girl was here I was able to question her about her sadness. She was lost, she told me. She could not find the valley which breathed and the bright stone of her dead father. It is the same. I know it, I feel it! We must summon her again. We must go beyond the Stone Falls again. I need your help.
Who knows where and when this war will end? My eldest son will be called up soon, and Steven soon after. I shall have more freedom to explore the wood, and deal with the girl.
Edward, you must come.
With kind regards,
In May 1944 I received my call-up papers and went reluctantly away to war, training at first in the Lake District, then shipping over to France with the 7th Infantry.
On the eve of my final departure I felt so resentful of my father’s apparent lack of concern for my safety that, when he was asleep, I went quietly to his desk and tore a page out of his notebook, the diary in which his silent, obsessive work was recorded. The fragment was dated simply ‘August 34’, and I read it many times, dismayed by its incomprehensibility, but content that I had stolen at least a tiny part of his life with which to support myself through those painful, lonely times.
The entry began with a bitter comment on the distractions in his life – the running of Oak Lodge, our family home, the demands of his two sons, and the difficult relationship with his wife, Jennifer. (By then, I remember, my mother was desperately ill.) It closed with a passage quite memorable for its incoherence:
A letter from Watkins – agrees with me that at certain times of the year the aura around the woodland could reach as far as the house. Must think through the implications of this. He is keen to know the power of the oak vortex that I have measured. What to tell him? Certainly not of the first mythago. Have noticed too that the enrichment of the pre-mythago zone is more persistent, but concomitant with this, am distinctly losing my sense of time.
I treasured this piece of paper for many reasons, but particularly for the moment or two of my father’s passionate interest that it represented – and yet, it locked me out of its understanding, as he had locked me out at home. Everything he loved, everything I hated.
I was wounded in early 1945 and when the war finished I managed to stay in France, travelling south to convalesce in a village in the hills behind Marseilles, where I lived with old friends of my father. It was a hot, dry place, very still, very slow; I spent my time sitting in the village square and quickly became a part of the tiny community.
Letters from my brother Christian, who had returned to Oak Lodge after the war, arrived every month throughout the long year of 1946. They were chatty, informative letters, but there was an increasing note of tension in them, and it was clear that Christian’s relationship with our father was deteriorating rapidly. I never heard a word from the old man himself, but then I never expected to; I had long since resigned myself to the fact that, even at best, he regarded me with total indifference. All his family had been an intrusion in his work, and his guilt at neglecting us, and especially at driving our mother to taking her own life, had blossomed rapidly, during the early years of the war, into an hysterical madness that could be truly frightening. Which is not to say that he was perpetually shouting; on the contrary, most of his life was spent in silent, absorbed contemplation of the oak woodland that bordered our home. At first infuriating, because of the distance it put between him and his family, soon those long periods of quiet became blessed, earnestly welcomed.
He died in November 1946, of an illness that had afflicted him for years. When I heard the news I was torn between my unwillingness to return to Oak Lodge, at the edge of the Ryhope estate in Herefordshire, and my awareness of Christian’s obvious distress. He was alone now, in the house where we had lived through our childhood together. I could imagine him prowling the empty rooms, perhaps sitting in father’s dank and un- wholesome study and remembering the hours of denial, the smell of wood and compost that the old man had trudged in through the glass-panelled doors after his week-long sorties into the deep woodlands. The forest had spread into that room as if my father could not bear to be away from the rank undergrowth and the cool, moist oak glades, even when making token acknowledgement of his family. He made that acknowledgement in the only way he knew: by telling us – and mainly telling my brother – stories of the ancient forestlands beyond the house, the primary woodland of oak, ash, beech and the like, in whose dark interior (he once said) wild boar could still be heard, and smelled, and tracked by their spoor.
I doubt if he had ever seen such a creature, but that evening, as I sat in my room overlooking the tiny village in the hills (Christian’s letter a crushed ball still held in my hand) I vividly recalled how I had listened to the muffled grunting of some woodland animal, and heard the heavy, unhurried crashing of something bulky moving inwards, towards the winding pathway that we called Deep Track, a route that led spirally towards the very heartwoods of the forest.
I knew I would have to go home, and yet I delayed my departure for nearly another year. During that time Christian’s letters ceased abruptly. In his last letter, dated April 10th, he wrote of Guiwenneth, of his unusual marriage, and hinted that I would be surprised by the lovely girl to whom he had lost his ‘heart, mind, soul, reason, cooking ability and just about everything else, Steve’. I wrote to congratulate him, of course, but there was no further communication between us for months.
Eventually I wrote to say I was coming home, that I would stay at Oak Lodge for a few weeks, and then find accommodation in one of the nearby towns. I said goodbye to France, and to the community that had become so much a part of my life. I travelled to England by bus and train, by ferry, and then by train again. On August 20th I arrived by pony and trap at the disused railway line that skirted the edge of the extensive estate. Oak Lodge lay on the far side of the grounds, four miles further round the road, but accessible via the right of way through the estate’s fields and woodlands. I intended to take an intermediate route and so, lugging my single, crammed suitcase as best I could, I began to walk along the grass-covered railway track, peering on occasion over the high, red-brick wall that marked the limit of the estate, trying to see through the gloom of the pungent pine woods.
Soon this woodland, and the wall, vanished, and the land opened into tight, tree-bordered fields, to which I gained access across a rickety wooden stile, almost lost beneath briar and full-fruited blackberry bushes. I had to trample my way out of the public domain and so on to the south trackway that wound, skirting patchy woodland and the stream called ‘sticklebrook’, up to the ivy-covered house that was my home.
It was late morning, and very hot, as I came in distant sight of Oak Lodge. Somewhere off to my left I could hear the drone of a tractor. I thought of old Alphonse Jeffries, the estate’s farm supervisor, and with the memory of his weather-tanned, smiling face came images of the mill-pond, and fishing for pike from his tiny rowing boat.
Memory of the tranquil mill-pond haunted me, and I moved away from the south track, through waist-high nettles and a tangle of ash and hawthorn scrub. I came out close to the bank of the wide, shadowy pool, its full extent hidden by the gloom of the dense stand of oak woodland that began on its far side. Almost hidden among the rushes that crowded the nearer edge of the pond was the shallow boat from which Chris and I had fished, years before; its white paint had flaked away almost entirely now, and although the craft looked watertight, I doubted if it would take the weight of a full grown man. I didn’t disturb it but walked around the bank and sat down on the rough concrete steps of the crumbling boathouse; from here I watched the surface of the pool rippling with the darting motions of insects, and the occasional passage of a fish, just below.
‘A couple of sticks and a bit of string … that’s all it takes.’
Christian’s voice startled me. He must have walked along a beaten track from the Lodge, hidden from my view by the shed. Delighted, I jumped to my feet and turned to face him. The shock of his appearance was like a physical blow to me, and I think he noticed, even though I threw my arms about him and gave him a powerful brotherly bear-hug.
‘I had to see this place again,’ I said.
‘I know what you mean,’ he said, as we broke our embrace. ‘I often walk here myself.’ There was a moment’s awkward silence as we stared at each other. I felt, distinctly, that he was not pleased to see me. ‘You’re looking brown,’ he said. ‘And very drawn. Healthy and ill together …’
‘Mediterranean sun, grape-picking, and shrapnel. I’m still not one hundred percent fit.’ I smiled. ‘But it is good to be back, to see you again.’
‘Yes,’ he said dully. ‘I’m glad you’ve come, Steve. Very glad. I’m afraid the place … well, is a bit of a mess. I only got your letter yesterday and I haven’t had a chance to do anything. Things have changed quite a bit, you’ll find.’
And he more than anything. I could hardly believe that this was the chipper, perky young man who had left with his army unit in 1942. He had aged incredibly, his hair quite streaked with grey, more noticeable for his having allowed it to grow long and untidy at the back and sides. He reminded me very much of father: the same distant, distracted look, the same hollow cheeks and deeply wrinkled face. But it was his whole demeanour that had shocked me. He had always been a stocky muscular chap; now he was like the proverbial scarecrow, wiry, ungainly, on edge all the time. His gaze darted about, but never seemed to focus upon me. And he smelled. Of mothballs, as if the crisp white shirt and grey flannels that he wore had been dragged out of storage; and another smell beyond the naphtha … the hint of woodland and grass. There was dirt under his fingernails, and in his hair, and his teeth were yellowing.
He seemed to relax slightly as the minutes ticked by. We sparred a bit, laughed a bit, and walked around the pond, whacking at the rushes with sticks. I could not shake off the feeling that I had arrived home at a bad time.
‘Was it difficult … with the old man, I mean? The last days.’
He shook his head. ‘There was a nurse here for the final two weeks or so. I can’t exactly say that he went peacefully, but she managed to stop him damaging himself … or me, for that matter.’
‘I was going to ask you about that. Your letters suggested hostility between the two of you.’
Christian smiled quite grimly, and glanced at me with a curious expression, somewhere between agreement and suspicion. ‘More like open warfare. Soon after I got back from France, he went quite mad. You should have seen the place, Steve. You should have seen him. I don’t think he’d washed for months. I wondered what he’d been eating … certainly nothing as simple as eggs and meat. In all honesty, for a few months I think he’d been eating wood and leaves. He was in a wretched state. Although he let me help him with his work, he quickly began to resent me. He tried to kill me on several occasions, Steve. And I mean that, really desperate attempts on my life. There was a reason for it, I suppose …’
I was astonished by what Christian was telling me. The image of my father had changed from that of a cold, resentful man into a crazed figure, ranting at Christian and beating at him with his fists.
‘I always thought he had a touch of affection for you; he always told you the stories of the wood; I listened, but it was you who sat on his knee. Why would he try to kill you?’
‘I became too involved,’ was all Christian said. He was keeping something back, something of critical importance. I could tell from his tone, from his sullen, almost resentful expression. Did I push the point or not? It was hard to make the decision. I had never before felt so distant from my own brother. I wondered if his behaviour was having an effect on Guiwenneth, the girl he had married. I wondered what sort of atmosphere she was living in up at Oak Lodge.
Tentatively, I broached the subject of the girl.
Christian struck angrily at the rushes by the pond. ‘Guiwenneth’s gone,’ he said simply, and I stopped, startled.
‘What does that mean, Chris? Gone where?’
‘She’s just gone, Steve,’ he snapped, angry and cornered. ‘She was father’s girl, and she’s gone, and that’s all there is to it.’
‘I don’t understand what you mean. Where’s she gone to? In your letter you sounded so happy …’
‘I shouldn’t have written about her. That was a mistake. Now let it drop, will you?’
After that outburst, my unease with Christian grew stronger by the minute. There was something very wrong with him indeed, and clearly Guiwenneth’s leaving had contributed greatly to the terrible change I could see; but I sensed there was something more. Unless he spoke about it, however, there was no way through to him. I could find only the words, ‘I’m sorry.’
We walked on, almost to the woods, where the ground became marshy and unsafe for a few yards before vanishing into a musty deepness of stone and root and rotting wood. It was cool here, the sun being beyond the thickly foliaged trees. The dense stands of rush moved in the breeze and I watched the rotting boat as it shifted slightly on its mooring.
Christian followed my gaze, but he was not looking at the boat or the pond; he was lost, somewhere in his own thoughts. For a brief moment I experienced a jarring sadness at the sight of my brother so ruined in appearance and attitude. I wanted desperately to touch his arm, to hug him, and I could hardly bear the knowledge that I was afraid to do so.
Quite quietly I asked him, ‘What on earth has happened to you, Chris? Are you ill?’
He didn’t answer for a moment, then said, ‘I’m not ill,’ and struck hard at a puffball, which shattered and spread on the breeze. He looked at me, something of resignation in his haunted face. ‘I’ve been going through a few changes, that’s all. I’ve been picking up on the old man’s work. Perhaps a bit of his reclusiveness is rubbing off on me, a bit of his detachment.’
‘If that’s true, then perhaps you should give up for a while.’
‘Because the old man’s obsession with the oak forest eventually killed him. And from the look of you, you’re going the same way.’
Christian smiled thinly and chucked his reedwhacker out into the pond, where it made a dull splash and floated in a patch of scummy green algae. ‘It might even be worth dying to achieve what he tried to achieve … and failed.’
I didn’t understand the dramatic overtone in Christian’s statement. The work that had so obsessed our father had been concerned with mapping the woodland, and searching for evidence of old forest settlements. He had invented a whole new jargon for himself, and effectively isolated me from any deeper understanding of his work. I said this to Christian, and added, ‘Which is all very interesting, but hardly that interesting.’
‘He was doing much more than that, much more than just mapping. But do you remember those maps, Steve? Incredibly detailed …’
I could remember one quite clearly, the largest map, showing carefully marked trackways and easy routes through the tangle of trees and stony outcrops; it showed clearings drawn with almost obsessive precision, each glade numbered and identified, and the whole forest divided into zones, and given names. We had made a camp in one of the clearings close to the woodland edge. ‘We often tried to get deeper into the heartwoods, remember those expeditions, Chris? But the deep track just ends, and we always managed to get lost; and very scared.’
‘That’s true,’ Christian said quietly, looking at me quizzically, and added, ‘What if I told you the forest had stopped us entering? Would you believe me?’
I peered into the tangle of brush, tree and gloom, to where a sunlit clearing was visible. ‘In a way I suppose it did,’ I said. ‘It stopped us penetrating very deeply because it made us scared, because there are few trackways through, and the ground is choked with stone and briar … very difficult walking. Is that what you meant? Or did you mean something a little more sinister?’
‘Sinister isn’t the word I’d use,’ said Christian, but added nothing more for a moment; he reached up to pluck a leaf from a small, immature oak, and rubbed it between thumb and forefinger before crushing it in his palm. All the time he stared into the deep woods. ‘This is primary oak woodland, Steve, untouched forest from a time when all of the country was covered with deciduous forests of oak and ash and elder and rowan and hawthorn …’
‘And all the rest,’ I said with a smile. ‘I remember the old man listing them for us.’
‘That’s right, he did. And there’s more than three square miles of such forest stretching from here to well beyond Grimley. Three square miles of original, post-Ice Age forestland. Untouched, uninvaded for thousands of years.’ He broke off and looked at me hard, before adding, ‘Resistant to change.’
I said, ‘He always thought there were boars alive in there. I remember hearing something one night, and he convinced me that it was a great big old bull boar, skirting the edge of the woods, looking for a mate.’
Christian led the way back towards the boat house. ‘He was probably right. If boars had survived from mediaeval times, this is just the sort of woodland they’d be found in.’
With my mind opened to those events of years ago, memory inched back, images of childhood – the burning touch of sun on bramble-grazed skin; fishing trips to the mill-pond; tree camps, games, explorations … and instantly I recalled the Twigling.
As we walked back to the beaten pathway that led up to the Lodge, we discussed the sighting. I had been about nine or ten years old. On our way to the sticklebrook to fish we had decided to test out our stick and string rods on the mill-pond, in the vain hope of snaring one of the predatory fish that lived there. As we crouched by the water (we only ever dared to go out in the boat with Alphonse) we saw movement in the trees, across on the other bank. It was a bewildering vision that held us enthralled for the next few moments, and not a little terrified: standing watching us was a man in brown, leathery clothes, with a wide, gleaming belt around his waist, and a spiky, orange beard that reached to his chest: on his head he wore twigs, held to his crown by a leather band. He watched us for a moment only, before slipping back into the darkness. We heard nothing in all this time, no sound of approach, no sound of departure.
Running back to the house we had soon calmed down. Christian decided, eventually, that it must have been old Alphonse, playing tricks on us. But when I mentioned what we’d seen to my father he reacted almost angrily (although Christian recalls him as having been excited, and bellowing for that reason, and not because he was angry with our having been near the forbidden pool). It was father who referred to the vision as ‘the Twigling’, and soon after we had spoken to him he vanished into the woodland for nearly two weeks.
‘That was when he came back hurt, remember?’ We had reached the grounds of Oak Lodge, and Christian held the gate open for me as he spoke.
‘The arrow wound. The gypsy arrow. My God, that was a bad day.’
‘The first of many.’
I noticed that most of the ivy had been cleared from the walls of the house; it was a grey place now, small, curtainless windows set in the dark brick. The slate roof, with its three tall chimney stacks, was partially hidden behind the branches of a big old beech tree. The yard and gardens were untidy and unkempt, the empty chicken coops and animal shelters ramshackle and decaying. Christian had really let the place slip. But when I stepped across the threshold, it was as if I had never been away. The house smelled of stale food and chlorine, and I could almost see the thin figure of my mother, working away at the immense pinewood table in the kitchen, cats stretched out around her on the red-tiled floor.
Christian had grown tense again, staring at me in that fidgety way that marked his unease. I imagined he was still unsure whether to be glad or angry that I had come home like this. For a moment I felt like an intruder. He said, ‘Why don’t you unpack and freshen up. You can use your old room. It’s a bit stuffy, I expect, but it’ll soon air. Then come down and we’ll have some late lunch. We’ve got all the time in the world to chat, as long as we’re finished by tea.’ He smiled, and I thought this was some slight attempt at humour. But he went on quickly, staring at me in a cold, hard way, ‘Because if you’re going to stay at home for a while, then you’d better know what’s going on here. I don’t want you interfering with it, Steve, or with what I’m doing.’
‘I wouldn’t interfere with your life, Chris –’
‘Wouldn’t you? We’ll see. I’m not going to deny that I’m nervous of you being here. But since you are … ’ He trailed off, and for a second looked almost embarrassed. ‘Well, we’ll have a chat later on.’