There once was a forest that ate poets. It caught them unawares. They saw the steam rising from it as the sun rose, or glimpsed it through the incendiary shimmer of the afternoon, or perhaps recognized it as the void against which fireflies danced. They thought themselves the first to ever have beheld it just so, and absolutely had to stop.
A cottage picturesque in the extreme was always available for exorbitant rent from the dour farmer up the road. And a woman from the village could be paid double the usual to cook and clean. Dog-eared books, sketch pads, bottles of whiskey, and opium pipes would be discharged upon the floor and the table and the beds. Hams, chickens, wheels of cheese, and loaves of bread would be ordered. Fed and watered, with fire lit and drink in hand, the poets would try to seduce the help with endless poetical comparisons:
“Your eyes are deep as the starry darks.”
“Your skin is soft as Varanasi ash.”
“Your love is like an empty room.”
And so on.
She might feel briefly sorry for them, not because their verse was banal, but because they would soon be dead. In the village pub there was no such sympathy. Instead there was a chalkboard on which were recorded all the overcooked similes the women had heard over all the many years. These were organized into categories so useful and well known that they need no mention: metonymy, synecdoche, hypocatastasis, synonymia, proslepsis, et cetera. In the evening the local punters would study this catalogue and predict the rhetorical tendencies of the latest lodger. The next night cash would be exchanged, rounds bought, and technical arguments formulated, framed, and presented, over such issues as whether the phrase “as Li Po drowned in the moon; so shame in your eyes; reason, your kiss” was best described as zeugma or syllepsis. It was always an exciting time in the village when a poet was about and spending money, although it never lasted long.
One morning he would go for a walk in the woods, with a sandwich wrapped in wax paper, or a sweet-smelling pear, or just a walking stick and pipe, and never come back. After three nights the women would gather up the poor fellow’s belongings and bring them to the church. The priest would bless the lot and the villagers divide it among themselves. If the clothes were too silly to wear they would be disassembled for more sensible reconstruction; books with no pictures were torn up and used to wrap fish, or to insulate the whistling attics, or to start fires on damp and windy days; and whatever cash was left after the tithe was put into the village Cooperative Society and Widows’ Fund.
Occasionally a villager would be compelled by desperate necessity to enter the forest: to collect firewood perhaps, or hunt game, or to escape the revenue men and the constables. These thieves, poachers, and smugglers would return to report all manner of strange occurrences. The groaning trees shuffled about, the earth moved underfoot as the thick roots twisted and turned. Skulls grinned up from the rotting duff, lily-of-the-valley growing through their orbits. Headless skeletons were suspended in the canopy, branches reaching through ribs, vines crawling down the dangling arms and legs. The streams and pools were filled with knuckles, vertebrae, and teeth. Paper was scattered everywhere. Fragments, pages, and ragged little books filled with all manner of scrawl: looping, loping, sloping, stuttered, crabbed, and cramped.
“. . .death like the wild forest grows…” they might read.
Or: “. . .death is a forest in which the children play.”
Maybe just: “the forest.”
And once, on a scrap of paper torn into a neat square and placed with a pair of spectacles on a flat rock: “Not metaphor, but thing.”
William Squirrell lives and works in western Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Blue Monday Review, Pidgeonholes, and other venues.