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Variations on a Theme

February 29, 2012

This is what I believe: That I am I. That my soul is a dark forest. That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest. That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back. That I must have the courage to let them come and go. That I will never let mankind put anything over me, but that I will try always to recognize and submit to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women. ~ D.H. Lawrence


There was once a village surrounded on all sides by a forest. At some point, the villagers came to find that the forest was encroaching on the grassland that lay between them and it. The concerned citizens came together in a village council whereupon it was determined to send an exploratory expedition into the forest. Exploration of the surrounding forest had only been undertaken previously in rather limited excursions, often enough by eccentrics that never returned, or youths that would only wade in and back out again. But the pace of expansion of the forest seemed to increase with every month, and so out of fear for their survival, the villagers sent a sizable and diverse group.

The members included a Scientist, a Philosopher, a Teacher, an Artist, a Captain, a Priest, a Deacon, a Councilman, a Merchant, a Judge, and a Lumberjack. After a night-long, village-wide send-off, the expedition departed in early morning with headaches and fanfare. A fortnight or more passed without news and the village feared the worst, for themselves and their expedition, for they had sent off some of their finest citizens, and the forest was still advancing.

Then, on a foggy morning warm and wet, a figure materialized from the mist. The cry went out and as the figure neared, the village congregated at its edge, brimming with anticipation. The figure drew near and they saw it was the Artist. At once, in cacophony they cried:

“What happened?!”

“Where are the others?!”

“The forest is still growing!”

The Artist bid them all relax and requested she be permitted to recount her tale before the fire in the Hall. When comfortable, as the village crowded around, the Artist said:

“We were not two days into the forest when we were set upon at night by an even darker spirit. It scattered us through the forest and the trees and thoroughly dissolved our company – though not before turning some to madness.” A hush fell across the room as it dawned on them that this was not to be a light-hearted tale. The Artist went on, her eyes flickering like the fire she stared through, “The first to suffer was the Merchant – it was as if some unseen demon had taken hold of him with its hands, for he writhed and screamed and there appeared on his face gashes… ” The Artist paused and swallowed her stomach. “Then… the invisible hands tore him apart, limbs from torso, head from body, and devoured him.”

The Artist went on, “We were to say a few words for his memory, but the Priest and the Deacon began to quarrel over the rites. It escalated… transformed so quickly – the Deacon was suddenly a wolf and the Priest was a serpent and they set upon each other. I… do not know what became of them, for I fled like the others from whatever Shadow haunted us.” She seemed ashamed, but was resolved to tell it all, “When I came to my senses, it was light outside and I found I’d fallen asleep huddled against a log. I had no idea where I was, so I just started walking. I don’t know how long it was, but eventually I came across the Philosopher sitting thoughtfully on a stump.

“I asked him, ‘What are you doing?’ and he replied, ‘I am thinking.’ ‘What for?’ I asked. ‘Because I’m lost,’ he said. I replied, ‘All of us are lost.’ He said, ‘There must be some way out of here.’ I felt sorry for him and so I asked, ‘Have you made any progress?’ He replied, ‘No, I feel like I’ve been going in circles. I keep finding promising leads, but they always lead to dead ends.’”

The Artist shook her head. “I tried to get him to come along, but he insisted on figuring it out himself. He was very stubborn. In any case, I continued on, still without aim. Again, I wandered for days, but ran into another member of our expedition – ” Someone interrupted:


The Artist glanced away from the fire, then back again. “I came across a large hole in the ground – nearly fell into it, as a matter of fact. I went to inspect it and was astounded to find the Scientist digging frantically away, muttering to himself all the while.”

“Was he mad? Like the Priest and the Deacon?”

The Artist shook her head. “No, he was lucid enough, but lost entirely to abstractions.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, he was trying to categorize the entire forest, sort of divide and conquer it, you know? He kept talking about the roots, the root causes, a fundamental root cause, and so on. He would start with some principles he knew to be experimentally true, then he would proceed with deductions and derivations and transformations, then extrapolations, substituting theories for truths when he was forced to admit ignorance, whereafter he’d eventually lose track of everything and have to start over. I tried to tell him the hole was too deep, that he was over his head, and that I would readily fashion a rope and send it down to him, but he would only say ‘It only stands to reason’, to which I said, ‘I believe reason has lost itself a long way from here’, but he could not even hear me anymore. I had no choice but to continue on.”

Outside the night was coming on, and the forest branches that crept seemed to loom over the village windows, obscuring the moon and the stars and turning the dark opaque. Shivers rippled through the room and all huddled closer to each other and the fire. The Artist went on:

“I went another five days without seeing another one of our number, and when I found her, I wished I had not.” The Artist’s face fouled as she said, “There was a clearing, newly cut, and from just beyond the treeline I could make out a small cabin and a garden – and someone in it. But what robbed my attention was right next to me.” She shuddered, “It was the Judge, hung from a high limb, her face bloated and fly-ridden, her hands and finger contorted, her face full of fear.

“I ran out into the clearing in a panic, over to the stooped figure in the garden,who was plucking and picking and discarding the weeds. And can you imagine my surprise and relief to find our beloved Councilman? Alas, my hope was for naught and soon dashed. He was content to converse with me, but he would provide no information, and said only ‘The Garden needs sorting out’. I replied that it was but a small garden and he should be done in no time – but even as I said this, the weeds sprouted up again where they had just been plucked and I realized I was speaking to Sisyphus.

“Then came a voice from the cabin porch both familiar and foreign, or rather a familiar voice with a pleasantly foreign tone. I looked over and saw it was the Captain, who led our company, as you all surely recall. He waved a hand, beckoning me, and so I went over. ‘Hello, there,’ he said. ‘Hello,’ I replied, ‘What are you doing here?’ He laughed and said he could ask me the same thing.”

The Artist paused and asked for a bowl of wine. She received it, gulped it, and smacked her lips in satisfaction. She continued, “The Captain told me that something about being alone, without peace to keep or fights to fight, people to jail – without duty he felt empty, but a warm emptiness… or was it empty warmth? No matter – the phrase was poetry all the same.” She took another swig of her wine. “He decided that he wanted to stay in the forest and live out his days – ”

A quiet voice asked, “Forgive me for interrupting, but how’d he manage to build a cabin?”

The Artist replied, “Incredibly, he claimed he ran across the Lumberjack the very next day and together they chose a sight and built the cabin. The Councilman showed up a few days later, insisting on protection and pledging service.” The Artist paused, unsure whether to commentate. She pressed on:

“It occurred to me that our Councilman in question was sometimes accused of self-service and indulgence… he displayed none of that when I saw him. Indeed, he seemed intent on weeding the garden at all cost to his own health and happiness. What’s more, he seemed happy!”

Someone ventured, “Perhaps it was the demise of the Merchant and the clergy that freed him?”

The Artist considered the speaker and the spoken. “That may well be.” There was a lull.

Someone else asked, “Was the Lumberjack there?”

The Artist frowned. “No, he wasn’t. The Captain said he’d left the day after the cabin was finished – ”


“To be a Carpenter, and to find the Desired Country.” The Artist was met with puzzled expressions and shrugs.

Suddenly, “Wait – that Judge… you said she was hung near the cabin, right? Do you think the Captain was involved?”

Another interjected, “The Captain embraced the peaceful life.”

An objection, “Or so he says!”

The Artist said, “The Captain did kill the Judge – ” There was a murmurous uproar. “But! Hear me out! But – he asserted that the Judge had been driven mad and tried to condemn and curse him and the Lumberjack for peace at the expense of trees, and when they protested, she deigned to sentence them herself.”

“So it was self-defense?”

“It would seem so.” The Artist paused a breath, “Also, he objected to my use of ‘kill’. He told me there was no death, that the Judge was alive in the forest as we spoke. When I voiced my reservations, he said only, ‘It is the soldier that lives always with death.’” There was a mulled-over silence by all.

“What about the Teacher?”

The Artist nodded. “Ah, yes. Well, I stayed with the Captain for awhile, for he is possessed of great insight, but at last I remembered our mission and determined that if no one else could, I must report. I set off, again without clear direction, and eventually found myself in a thinning wood. Next thing I know I’m back on the path – at the very site where we were first beset, though I found no bodies. It was there that I encountered the Teacher. She told me where I was and was prepared to guide me back, but I knew the way. I implored her to come, but she insisted on waiting for the others, as she was quite convinced they would come to her in time.”

The crowd was relatively silent, breaking it only to seek consistency. The oldest man in the village shuffled towards the front so as to address the Artist. The Sage looked the Artist up and down and asked:

“And what happened to the Artist? Why has she not returned?”

Suddenly, the world flashed around the Artist, the fire, the room, the people, the village. It all flickered and went away and in the brevity she realized: “Because I’m part of the forest?”

The Sage said, “We are all the forest.”

It made sense – how else could she have seen all these happenings? The Artist started to rejoice, but a nagging doubt took hold:

“How can one tree witness so much?”

The Sage laughed and said, “You miss the forest for the trees.”

And all at once, the world was illuminated – the Artist cried out, “Verily! There is the light and the ferns and the deer and the wolves!” She suddenly imagined those in her company as aspects of the forest: the Philosopher was the wind, the Scientist was the forest floor, the Lumberjack was an oak, and the Captain was a glade. The Artist wondered: Who am I? Just then, as her mind drifted between the trunks, she passed under a hole in the canopy and found she was the light.


When the Sage opened his eyes from meditating, sitting upon a stump in the midst of the forest, he found that he, too, was only That.


From → Short Stories

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