Fantasy Fiction

There was once a young woman called Bella, who appeared to all intents and purposes to be a very ordinary and normal young woman, which of course does not mean that she was a boring or uninteresting one. She was the kind of woman described by her workmates as “very pleasant” and had a couple of acceptable quirks, like collecting anything to do with rabbits, though she had not had a pet rabbit since she was a little girl, and like having a taste for unusual earrings, though she was generally quite a sober dresser. She was extremely taken with her latest pair, which were like little dangling trees. You generally only saw trees on Christmas earrings but these did not have tiny baubles on them, and did not light up. They were proper trees. Well, of course they weren’t, but they looked like miniature versions of them. She had found them in a little charity shop where she normally bought paperback books and cushion covers. Generally, though she wasn’t obsessive about such things, she would have hesitated to wear earrings that someone else had worn. But she couldn’t resist these earrings. The manager, whom she knew well, had admitted, “I can’t remember who brought them in, but they’re certainly unusual, aren’t they?” Despite knowing him well, Bella couldn’t quite work out what implication he put on the word “unusual”, but she bought the earrings.

Bella was the kind of person who thought that walks were somewhat over-rated and over-mythologised when it came to their restorative and healing powers, but she didn’t especially mind them, and she lived quite near a little wood. Some called it a forest, but that was pushing it somewhat, no matter what the tourist board said. Bella, who had an interest in words, knew that the word “forest” had, originally, had nothing to do with trees, but saying things like that too often get you a reputation for being pedantic, and though there were worse reputations, she generally decided it wasn’t worth it. Anyway, she rather liked the word “forest”. “Wood” had a double meaning, and also made you think of planks in builders’ yards and cloying, if undeniably tempting, advertisements for Your Forever Furniture.

Anyway, on one of those days that can’t seem to decide whether it is winter or spring, Bella went for a walk in the forest. She thought she might pick up a few pine cones; after all, her niece Maxine was coming to visit soon, and Maxine was very fond of making things.

Bella proceeded at a normal walking pace. She was not scuttling and she was not sauntering. She was walking, apart from an intermittent look downwards for the pine cones, at more or less the same pace she would have walked at in town. She suddenly realised that she was aware of her earrings. That was the only way she could express it. They weren’t hurting, or pinching, or catching, or anything like that, but she was aware of them. And like most people who favour more extravagant earrings, if anything she felt more aware of not wearing earrings than of the earrings. Involuntarily, she put her hand to her left ear, and then the strangest thing happened.

“So she’s come at last, just as we were told. The one who can understand.”

Somewhat startled Bella looked around her, and, just as she expected, could see nobody else in the forest, at least not near enough for her to hear them, for the voice itself, though clear, had not been loud. And the thing was, she knew, though of course she knew that couldn’t be so, that the voice didn’t come from a human. Oh, it wasn’t like the squawking tones of a parrot, or the song of the humpbacked whale (though she supposed parrots, at least wild ones, and whales, had not been in that forest for millions of years), nor yet the anthropomorphised voice of a cartoon creature. But there was something about it that was thick and clear at the same time, both fruity and fluting.

She looked into a tree, and saw a squirrel. It was a grey squirrel, but Bella grew impatient with people who practised squirrel apartheid, and had even dared to say so on occasion. She knew that the squirrel had spoken. Oh. Oh, she thought, so it was the squirrel, and for a split second it seemed the most natural thing in the world, and then it dawned on her in a rush that it was not the most natural thing in the world at all. She wasn’t exactly scared, and instinct told her the squirrel would do her no harm, but this wasn’t the kind of thing that was supposed to happen.

“And she does understand,” another voice said, and this one came from below. She looked down and saw a wild rabbit, a shy, bold creature, silky eared and agile. “She hears us and she understands. She has found the earrings that our friend the rat planted in the shop. She is the chosen one. Don’t be afraid, young lady.”

“I’m not,” Bella said, more or less truthfully. “But it’s not what I was expecting.”

“You must expect the unexpected,” said a starling, as he swooped round her head. Bella had heard that starlings could be trained to talk, though never to the extent of sparrows or mynah birds, and that Mozart, no less, had owned a talking starling. But she rather suspected that Mozart’s starling hadn’t spoken like that. “And there is no shame in being surprised, but you must get used to it, because you are the one who was foretold.”

Bella had decided that though it was undoubtedly weird, she could live with being able to understand what the animals of the forest were saying, and though of course she knew it was one of those things she could never talk about, she wasn’t rendered especially uneasy by it, not even by the fact that her earrings had been brought by a rat (she wasn’t drastically fond of rats, but wanted to be the kind of person who thought they were much maligned). But the notion of being the one who was foretold was another matter.

I am not the kind of person who is foretold, thought Bella. I am Bella Atkins, who lives in a slightly cluttered bungalow with my collection of rabbit related stuff and who works at Whitely and Windham, the estate agents on the market square.

I do not have to come back to the forest, if I don’t want to, she told herself. But of course she did. And she began to quite enjoy it. The animals chattered about – well, the kind of things everyone chattered about – getting food for their families, keeping their homes clean, fretting when their children were ailing or getting in trouble. There were friendships, and sometimes unexpected ones , like the one between the fox and the butterfly, though she had trembled for the fate of the latter when she first saw him alight on the fox’s nose, but there were also rivalries and resentments. It never quite became part of her routine, something she took for granted, but she began to quite look forward to it.

Bella soon became tuned in, or had no choice otherwise, not only to the rabbits and squirrels, and fluttering birds, and the furry and feathered creatures of the forest. She head the message of every fleet-winged moth, and the words of every burrowing worm, and at times it even more than seemed that she could heard the speaking of the spores of fungi beneath her feet, though perhaps that was not quite speaking. Occasionally it all coalesced into some cacophony, and yet more often than not she could separate the voices and their owners, and even seemed to follow several conversations at once, below, on her level, and above. She did not so much gradually notice a difference as realise when it had happened, and it was both subtle and obvious. There was a pause when she entered the forest, rather than a continuation of conversations as if she had not been noticed, and had become part of its tapestry herself, a notion that both hugely pleased and vaguely disconcerted her. It was true, or at least she thought it was, that she did catch more “when” and “if” and not just the constant practical presence, and it dawned on her that there were different conversations that took place in her absence, but she didn’t mind that.

And there were moments of pure, unalloyed joy and enchantment that more than compensated for any of these minor niggles. One day she walked into the forest at dawn, and she saw, in a little clearing where the light was filtered and dappled, a deer and her fawn, their eyes immense and liquid, their manner shy and dignified, intent on their grazing, and yet intensely aware of her, too. She did not doubt that she would be able to understand them, but it was still a special and wonderful moment when the deer said, in a voice low and sweet, “I have heard of you. Of the person who was foretold.” Bella felt a kind of reverence, and without any irony or awkwardness, she said in an old fashioned way, “I give you greetings,” and inclined her head. The deer bowed her head, too.

After that moment of serenity, for once, Bella did not welcome the chattering of the other creatures, and decided that even a magical power deserved a few hours off from time to time, and she decided to take her earrings out.

But she could not. Try as she might, she could not. The trying did not snag or draw blood, or scratch, or catch, it was as if they had become a part of her own body. I don’t like this, she thought. But for the first time she did not know if she so much thought as heard the question that ensued, “But if you were given the choice to be without them forever, would that be your choice?”

No, it would not.

As the year wore on, she became increasingly aware of discontent among the creatures of the forest. She did not blame them. She was on their side, of course. She, too, heartily disapproved of the new road and the new housing development that were planned. She was most certainly not opposed to housing, and pragmatically accepted that sometimes there had to be new roads, but there were places where they should never be built, places where the sacrifice was too great.

“They are speaking of planting new forests,” said the fox, the butterfly perched on its nose, “But what good is that to us, now? And why not just preserve this one?”

“They think that they have the right to tear our home down, and not just where we live, but where our ancestors lived, and where our descendants should live,” said the squirrel. “It is not right.”

Even now, Bella tended to listen more often than she spoke, but now she spoke. “I agree with you. You know that. I am on your side. I always have been. I have signed a petition.”

The deer spoke, and she spoke rarely, and her words were gentle and restrained, but with a strength and intensity that made all listen and their own chatter abate. “I won’t be disrespectful to the one who was foretold. But what good is a petition? Petitions can soon be torn up, or wiped from a screen.” There was something decidedly disconcerting about one of the creatures of the forest referring, for that she undoubtedly was, to the internet, but there could never be anything discordant or the like about what the deer said. She went on. “We ask and expect more of you than that, Bella.” Was it the first time they had used her name, rather than calling her young lady or the one who was foretold. She wasn’t sure, but suspected it might be. “Speak, friend Badger.”

Having been brought up on The Wind in the Willows, Bella was rather disappointed that she didn’t often see or hear much of the badger, but when he did speak, everyone listened, and yes, his words were generally wise. He spoke slowly without drawling. “You must know, surely, that this time we have had enough. This time we are not going to let it happen. This time we will take a stand and not let our home be taken from us.”

“Yes,” said the squirrel, “They must not underestimate us. Think of the power we have between us. The power to burrow and peck and pluck. The power of talons and claws and wings, and of legs that kick and teeth that gnaw. You are to tell them that you have heard us say this, and that unless they abandon this destruction, then we will cause far greater destruction.

Bella underwent some kind of epiphany, and it was a sensation that was not exactly frightening, or at least not in the moment, for she knew that the creatures of the forest meant her no harm, and she wanted to think it was because they loved her, but realised she was also useful to them, but a realisation of just how much power they held. Of just what they were capable, beyond any shadow of a doubt.

“This is the time when we turn,” a starling said, “it has been too long coming, but now it has come. We want to give your kind a chance. But I must tell you,” it flapped its wings in a gesture that signified it meant business, “this is not gesture or bluff-calling. You must speak to them and warn them that if they don’t stop their destruction and intrusion, then it will not go well with them.” She was not sure if she so much heard and sensed the fungi beneath her feet echoing it will not go well with them.

The trouble was, she also knew that if she started telling people that she had been talking to the creatures of the forest and they commanded her to let them know what would happen if their homes were destroyed, then what would happen would not be a halt to building plans, but a tactful suggestion that she had been working too hard and it would be as well for her to have a chat with someone, with the implication that if she didn’t do it of her own volition, then – well, things might get unpleasant.

“You look troubled,” said the deer. It was not an accusation, not a question, but a statement. Bella was sure she could never speak disrespectfully to the deer, but there was still an edge to her tone when she said, “Of course I look troubled. You do realise that this is – not as simple as you make out!”

“Did we ever make out it was simple?” asked the deer, in that gentle, challenging way. “I will tell you what you must do first. You trust me?”

“Of course I do.”

“Then you must get the ear of the local planning officer, and you must tell him that Golden Eye says it must not go ahead.”

“Are you Golden Eye?” She didn’t know if the glint of gold in its great dark eyes was newly come, or if she had only just noticed it.

“In a manner of speaking.”

She didn’t see how she could get the ear of the planning officer, but the next afternoon he came into the estate agents’ office to ask if they would be interested in “future plans”. She drew a deep breath, took him to one side, and said, “Sir, this must not go ahead. That is a message from Golden Eye.”

For a moment she half thought he was going to faint. “Is there somewhere we can speak privately?” he asked, in an odd, quiet, choked voice.

Looking deeply perplexed, but eager to indulge him, the office manager pointed to a little side office.

They sat down and the planning officer said. “How do you know about Golden Eye?”

“It’s a long story …..” but he went on telling it himself. He’d suffered tragedy when only a young lad, when his parents died in a car crash. He was taken in by his grandparents, who were kind, but his life had been lonely and troubled. Like many children, and not only lonely and troubled ones, he had an imaginary friend – and his was not a human, but a deer, a gentle, liquid eyed deer whom he called Golden Eye.

“And nobody knew about it,” he said, “Not my grandparents, not my favourite teacher, nobody. I don’t understand this.”

“Neither do I, entirely,” said Bella, frankly, “But Golden Eye is not imaginary.”

“I will do what I can,” he promised. “It won’t be easy.”

A month later, the housing project was relocated to a brownfield site, and six weeks later, the road building plan was diverted to a disused industrial estate.

When that happened, Bella woke up and her earrings had gone, and she knew there was no point looking for them.

And so far as I know, she’s still working at the Estate Agent on the market square.

March 22, 2021 08:23

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