Albedo One is delighted to bring you this fine story, which placed in the Top 6 of the International Aeon Award Short Fiction Contest 2014, from Cyril Simsa as our Albedo 2.0 Fiction Showcase #11 for Winter 2015/2016. Cyril Simsa was born and brought up in London, and for a while pretended to study zoology, though in actual fact he rarely left the obscurer regions of the university library and has rarely come closer to doing any real science than various holiday jobs at the Natural History Museum. Since 1992 he has lived in Prague, where he shuffles students around the borders of the former Austria-Hungary and does his best to avoid the fate of his near-namesake in the Kafka story. He has been hovering on the fringes of the SF world for much longer than is really sensible, and has contributed reviews and articles to a wide variety of genre publications like Foundation, Locus, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and Wormwood. His story credits include Darkness Rising, Here & Now, StarShipSofa, the World SF Blog, and Electric Velocipede. His short story collection Lost Cartographies: Tales of Another Europe (Invocations Press, Brighton, 2014) is available on Amazon and from selected genre retailers.
“Starspawn” by Cyril Simsa
So if you’re reading this, I guess you’re a fan, and I don’t have to do all the introductory bits about who or what Starspawn are — were — or why anyone should still be interested. (And assuming you’ve clicked through here by accident, there’s a nice write-up on Kill Your Pet Puppy and some more or less phantasmagorical bios on Wikipedia. Plus a discography, of course. That’s not so bad.)
From which you’ve probably gathered Starspawn were a band. In London. Some time ago. And my editor’s nodding as I record this, so now you know.
The first time I saw Starspawn was in 1985. January or February, I expect. Perhaps early March. This was back in the days when British law still forbade the hoi polloi to dance on a Sunday. Really. People forget, it was a different century. There were still bombsites from the Second World War in the poorer parts of town, and London Underground was still running trains from the 1930s. David Lynch shot The Elephant Man on location at Padding ton station, and it was no problem. Think about it.
Anyway, thanks to this rather curious piece of Victorian legislation, a number of the more enterprising London venues got into the habit of offering Sunday night slots to up and coming bands who avoided dance beats, allowing them to exchange the limits of a seated venue for a chance at exposure. And of course most bands were only too glad of that.
Starspawn had landed a spot at the King’s Head in Islington, which was a bit of an odd choice, really. They were much more raucous than the acts they usually booked at this largely acoustic venue and a good seven or eight years too young for the regulars; and judging by the first reactions I thought the night was going to be a bust. Truth was, as I later learned, the venue’s booking agent had given them the gig out of curiosity. This was Islington in the 1980s, after all, and Starspawn –with its female line-up and almost entirely female road crew — were gender pioneers. Musically the venue was more a haven for old hippies and the new urban activist classes; the sort of people who still thought that organic muesli and entry-level politics in the London Labour party were going to stop the Thatcherite yard sale. The “loony left”, in other words. Or, rather, to be more accurate, others’ words, since this was really more the language of the lunatic right. The King’s Head was where they went on their nights off.
I could see at once that Starspawn wasn’t what they were expecting. Four young women with big amps and an attitude. Moon with her shockingly pale face and spiky, black hair on lead; Dora with her olive skin and kohl-rimmed eyes on bass, very obviously not English, and just as obviously very beautiful; Val and Bess holding down the rear with tinkly pink triangle earrings and well-muscled torsos. The only guy in their crew was Greenstreet, their sound engineer, whom Moon had known since O-levels. And me, of course, if you want to look into the future, though at that stage they hadn’t been signed yet, so I didn’t become their producer till later. That first evening I was just on the lookout for a support act for my own band’s upcoming tour of Germany, and I’d met Moon at her day-job in the Earth Mysteries section of the old Compendium bookshop in Camden. So I sat in the audience and watched, generally pleased by the sight of four attractive young women bouncing around on a podium, and impressed — despite my somewhat disreputable thoughts — by the rapport between Moon and Dora. It normally takes years to develop something like that and they could not have been much more than twenty. Either they had started very young or they were exceptionally talented. Probably both, actually.
I didn’t really know all that much about Moon at the time we met. I’d heard that she came from Norfolk and had grown up in some long-decayed market town called Maiden Harborough. She had come to London to study, just as so many of us had, but she had lasted only a couple of terms. Dora and Greenstreet were school chums. She had found Val and Bess at the Polytechnic of North London, and suddenly they were a band, with a very striking front line in Moon and Dora and a taste for trance-like polyrhythms. It took me a few minutes to realis e, but at a time when the sweetly saccharine, three-minute pop-song was very much being fetishised, Starspawn made a point of building their music around complex riffs and the extended interplay of their instruments. Like a premonition of the much grungier indie scene which was then still to come. And they were loud. Moon’s guitar pushed constantly at the limits of conventional harmony, while Dora’s bass rumbled and roared underneath like a battery of tuned drums. It was a bit rough around the edges, to be sure, but very effective. Brilliant, even. I had heard nothing like it, and it was during one of the longer instrumental passages towards the end of their set that something happened. Suddenly the stage opened out, and for a few seconds the back room of the pub seemed to fill up with monstrous tree trunks and a glade of bluebells, and out of the greenery a horned human head rose and stared straight at me with inhuman, yellow eyes.
Dora saw him, too.
“Leshiy,” she cried in the language of her Bulgarian ancestors. “Leshiy, the Green One.” Her voice was clearly audible despite the noise, thanks to one of those freak lulls in the music.
And then the god in the shrubbery blinked, and we were back in the pub again. And the band played on, as the saying goes. And apart from Dora and myself — and Moon, as I discovered later — no-one had noticed anything. Still, for us it had been very real. Our little soiree had been visited by the spirit of the forest, and if I chose to understand that presence as the Great God Pan, I had some precedence for that. For was it not in exactly this kind of red-brick suburb that Arthur Machen and his sensation-loving fellow travellers from the English fin-de-siecle had located their greatest urban terrors?
Of course, all this does rather beg the question of why a women’s band like Starspawn should evoke a god whose traditional form was male. Why not a goddess, or one of those wild women of the woods they have in France and Poland? Why not a feral maiden? But if you look at the literature, it’s nearly always the man who goes wilding and the woman who is wilded to, so Pan has form. When did you ever hear of anybody’s wife or daughter going native, except as the direst of warnings? We are all children of the male gaze, bastard offspring of patriarchy. Mutants.
So we went to Germany: Starspawn and my own rather too arty band, Boris Viande, in a battered old transit van with the driver on the wrong side of the dash to be entirely at ease tearing from gig to gig down the autobahn. Starspawn were on their first tour, while BV, as it turned out, were on their last. But we made it, playing a string of twelve community halls and art spaces in fifteen days, culminating in a festival in Bielefeld. We didn’t really make much money, but that wasn’t the point. We were on a journey, at least that’s what I thought. The others weren’t so sure. By the time we got back to London it had become clear our viands were cooked (if you’ll pardon the obvious turn of phrase), and we split. “Artistic and personal differences”, as they wrote later in NME. Which is how I became Starspawn’s producer.
Maybe it’s time I introduced myself. Jack, that’s me. Black Jack Wicked: singer, song-writer, guitarist, and general mixing-desk whizz. I was a regular one-man Renaissance-about-town back then. Also a bit of a prat on occasion, but then who isn’t? At the time I was getting to know Moon I had made two albums with the Viands: Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder for the tiny, Brighton-based Knocking Shop label, and Pour la perversité! for Rough Trade. We had played a live set on the Old Grey Whistle Test, but botched the timing of our one potential Peel session, which is why you can’t find that on YouTube. I did rather better with my solo album, Forever Wicked. You can find pretty much the whole of that online. Google it. But that was after I’d set up Semper Sound, my boutique studio, and become part of the establishment.
Back in 1985, they installed us in a borrowed studio in another redbrick suburb, north of Islington, called Muswell Hill. It was very grand in a genteel, Edwardian kind of way, but also a little run down. It had somehow never quite been fashionable enough to attract the large scale development money of somewhere like Hampstead, and so retained many of its original features, only much tattier now than they had been. Obviously. It also incorporated a striking number of urban parks and woods, all carved out of the original Middlesex Forest that had covered the area before the builders arrived in the 1890s. The local authorities had done their best to tame these open spaces, to be sure, adding cinder paths, and ponds, and cricket pavilions and the like. But even so, it was impossible to visit the parks without running into ancient coppices, and medieval earthworks and the debris from abandoned gravel pits. The wildest of the woods had played host to a neo-pagan coven in the ’70s, while the largest was constantly awash with nature wardens and archaeologists. Our studio was on the edge of the Muswell Hill golf course, which had also once been part of the forest, very near the site where the silent film pioneer R.W. Paul had set up his experimental production facility at the start of the 20th century. It was a quirky choice of locat ion, but actually a good match for Starspawn’s more dreamy, improvisational proclivities. The greenery brought out their earthy side, while the ghost of the wildwood resonated with the off-kilter symmetries of their music’s inner strangeness.
There was a spot just beyond the studio, where someone had planted a circle of beech trees — perhaps half a century ago, judging by the size of them — enclosing a kind of open-air chapel. It reminded me of those mock-Doric pagan temples the landed gentry had so liked to build on their country estates in the 1700s, only of leaves of sunlight, and we took to gathering there in the afternoon for rehearsals. Goodness only knows what the golfers must have made of us: four punky girls and an aging rocker in piercings and leather, playing an incongruous acoustic set on the rough behind hole six. Still, a couple of them did start to wave whenever they passed, and Val and Bess got quite in the habit of waving back; while Greenstreet, in his boredom, went off and made friends with the gardeners.
We were just about ready to start recording for real when things went all weird again. It was one of those long summer evenings, when the warm, golden glow of the sunset is almost enough to convince you that time is an illusion, and I had the bright idea of recording a percussion track by dancing around and hammering on the beech trees. (You can still hear the result on “Thornapple & Cinnamon”, the fourth track on Hoping for what is forbidden to me, the Starspawn out-takes album.) Greenstreet brought us some nice wooden staves from the sheds by the club house, and we spent a few minutes tuning them — or at least testing them to get the hang of their resonance — while I set up an extension cable for the microphone. The sky was just turning that peculiar shade of green that precedes darkness, when we finally got going.
I no longer remember which direction we danced in. Stupid of me, I know, since — as my neo-pagan friends later explained to me — there’s a world of difference between deosil and widdershins. But we were a bunch of twenty-something rock musicians, several spliffs short of sobriety, mucking about in the half-dark on a London golf course. It didn’t occur to us to pay attention. Besides, Val and Bess were all loved up on the weed, and I was having enough trouble keeping them from slipping away into the bushes.
So we danced and drummed, and the tape reels turned. And as the moon rose over the trim, green turf and the bunkers, something answered us from the darkness. Cynics might say it was an owl, but it didn’t feel like that, and now I’ve had a quarter-century to catch up on my reading, I’d swear it was the fluting song of the goat god and his human acolytes, crying “Io! Io!” to the rattle of tiny stones down the side of a gorge. There was an underlying rhythm to the sound, like the clatter of hooves on turf in the distant greenwood. The pulse of the forest’s heartbeat. The call of the master forester’s horn. And as I listened, I became aware that our view over the golf course was darkening, as it rolled back the years and filled up with glade upon glade of monstrous tree trunks.
The drumming had stopped by this point, so I glanced to one side and saw that Moon and Dora stood transfixed, as still as tree trunks themselves.
“Leshiy,” Dora breathed, barely audible. “Leshiy. I always thought my grandmother was rambling, but I underestimated her. God bless her memory.”
“What is it?” asked Moon, coming suddenly back to consciousness. “Where are we?”
“In the old Middlesex Forest,” I replied, “if I had to guess. There were still uncleared medieval woodlands on these hills at the start of the century. Perhaps they want to come back…”
I paused, staring out at the impossible vista. A slight breeze blew through the tree-tops, rustling their leaves suggestively. A fox barked in the middle distance, and in the background I could still hear the original cry of “Io! Io!” I was completely at a loss what to think. Today I might be tempted to quote back a few reassuring phrases from some stray psychohistorian, but we didn’t have them yet back then. I felt as if I was seeing treble: 1980s; 1890s; and 1089, the last resurgence of Norman paganism under William Rufus. As so often, the only antecedent that sprang to my mind was Arthur Machen. All I was missing was a stone arrowhead or a black basalt tablet in an unknown alphabet. The Sangraal.
“Look, there’s a path,” said Dora, pointing. And it was true, a gravel road led off into the trees, right across the slope of what had so recently been a putting green. “Shall we go?”
And before we could stop her, she went, running into the woods in the stark moonlight.
Of course we tried to follow her; or Moon and I did, anyway. But as soon as she had crossed into the forest, the moon drifted into a bank of clouds, and the scene started to fade, and Dora with it.
“Dora!” Moon cried desperately, as she tried vainly to reach the path before it was lost in darkness. “Dora, come back!” But it was too late. The forest and its inhabitants had vanished, and we awoke and found ourselves on the cold hill’s side with the beginnings of a hangover, the end of an album to record and no bass player. Not really ideal. But life goes on, and we reconvened the next day with Greenstreet taking over production duties and myself standing in on bass. And after the initial strangeness had worn off the album started to shape up. We still played some of Dora’s compositions, which was a little weird at first, but actually, in the end, even that went better than expected.
It was her absence — the legal and practical implications of her sheer physical absence — that almost did for us. Her vanishing became harder and harder to explain as time rolled on. It wasn’t such a problem to invent a sick note for her day job, but her parents were another matter. They became more and more insistent when they called the studio, until eventually Moon had to tell them some fib about Dora having a job interview in Kingussie, and promised faithfully that she would call them when she got back. Which still left the obvious problem that we had no idea where she was, or when we might expect her. The forest path did not reappear. Pan was apparently content enough to stamp his feet and ravish his acolytes in private, or whatever it was he did when he wasn’t incarnate. Awkward sod.
The full moon faded away and started to grow again, and before we knew it, three weeks had passed and Dora’s parents were talking about the police. They didn’t mean the band.
We had tried summoning Dora back by hammering on the beech tree ring, but that achieved nothing except a complaint from the golf club, after they had been contacted by the local Conservative Association. They also threatened the studio’s owner with a Health & Safety inspection if he didn’t control us, so we gave up on the parkland at the edge of the golf course and stayed indoors. Which got us no nearer to locating Dora, of course.
It was Greenstreet, surprisingly, who came to our rescue.
“We’re wasting time,” he said one afternoon, as we sat in the studio after an especially unproductive session. “We’ll never get it done like this. Why don’t you all just go for a walk?”
We looked at each other stupidly, as if waiting for the idea to sink in.
“Separately,” he added. “Go and pick some buttercups or something. Climb a tree. Terrorise a mallard. Anything. I’ll lock up here.”
Val and Bess didn’t need telling twice, they were out of the door before we could say “goat”.
“Coming, then?” asked Moon. “I’ve heard there are some interesting parks and woods around here.” And she smiled for the first time in days.
So we went.
I’m not sure whether she had a plan, or whether she just set off at random, but our path took us down past the pub and across the road; past the public library, into a kind of dell that had been filled up with small-scale bungalows in the 1930s. And then we were back up on the opposite hill, by the pavilions of what had evidently once been a Victorian cottage hospital before the suburbs arrived. The road was silent and twisty, and lined with mature horse chestnut trees. It must have been a country lane, back in the day, and it was still remarkably leafy and quiet. It was a completely incongruous find in amongst the parked cars and pebble-dash.
“See?” said Moon. “Victorian splendour, not ten minutes’ walk away… Who would have thought it?”
And looking up at the Georgian-style red-brick portico, I had to agree. Only the Victorians had truly had the knack for combining a love of brick with an almost fetishised regard for the past.
“So where next, Columbus?” I asked.
“Let’s try that way.” She indicated a modest row of terraces that started to one side of the hospital with a suggestive green line of trees at their back.
It was a good choice. Turning the corner, we were confronted by a tangle of ancient oak and hornbeam, trailing leaves over the garden walls. The afternoon light was just starting to tip into the golden glow that leads to sunset, giving the trees a rosy crown that reminded me of nothing so much as a halo, while the shadows gathered in their lee like a flock of roosting owls.
“Pay dirt!” cried Moon.
She pushed past me though a gap in the wall, and I followed. Well, honestly, what else could I do? I had no idea whether this particular trail of breadcrumbs was real or imagined, or a bit of both, but this is what we had been trying to find for weeks. Ever since Dora vanished.
So we went. Of course, we did.
Inside it was darker than on the street, but still lit up with the warm glow of a sun that might have been as ancient as Arcady. The trees grew strong and massive in the thick, clayey soil of the Middlesex heights, tumbling down towards city limits like the cap of a Neolithic encampment on the Downs. A stream wound between them, hemmed in by a dense sward of sedges and meadow flowers, and with a quick nod at each other we followed. The wood was amazingly quiet, considering we were still in London. There was no traffic noise, no rumble of low-flying aircraft, no echo of children playing in the adjacent gardens. It was easy to believe that we had been swallowed by history and spat out in another place and time.
Eventually the ground levelled off and we found ourselves on a flood plain dotted with the gnarly torsos of antique willow trees. Their knotted boles hunched over the course of the stream like eldritch fishermen casting their lines for the ghosts of another clime. Shoots crowned the stumps of their limbs like spirit-hands reaching out to snare the fleeting centuries; and in their shadows, as we drew nearer, I saw the crumbly outlines of some kind of tumble-down lodge or keep.
It wasn’t much more than a couple of truncated walls by now, alongside a disorderly pile of masonry, the all overgrown with grass and lichen. But back in the day it must have been a handsome structure. The nearest willow twisted its roots into the foundations like the feet of a giant bird — almost as if the folk-tales of willows walking the woods at night were true — and its branches shaded the walls to create something like a grotto or bower. The pale yellow stone shone in the evening sunlight.
“This seems a likely place,” said Moon, stopping just short of the ruin. “I wonder how old this is? That stone over there has never seen a lathe, so it’s medieval at least. Perhaps even Roman or Celtic…” She frowned. “Or older?”
She seemed less sure of herself, all of a sudden, as if surprised at what she was saying and thinking.
“It’s certainly ancient.” I nodded, more for the sake of agreeing with her than because I had any opinion. “So where are we?” I asked cautiously. I almost whispered.
“I wish I knew,” she replied. “Somewhere deep in the heart of Middlesex? On a wild goat chase? But perhaps she can tell us.”
She raised a finger to point behind me, and I turned. A figure peeked out of the foliage at the back of the ruined temple with every appearance of interest, watching the two of us with disconcertingly level, amber-gold eyes. A flock of owls sat in the boughs beside her, their ungainly, round forms pale and speckled in the gloaming. They blinked.
The woman was tall and handsome, with red hair, and a green bodice, and a thick tangle of pendants and necklaces wound into knot at her throat. They swung like a pendulum as she stepped forward, lending her movements the sound of a distant tambour, as if she was accompanied by her own of troupe of temple dancers. Virgins. Priestesses. Handmaidens. Her long, pale arms swung up and out in response to the darting rhythm like willow shoots in the breeze; while her finely drawn features composed themselves till they were as regal and delicate as a bird’s. She nodded, but she didn’t smile. I found her quite intimidating, if truth be told, though Moon’s recollection of the whole encounter is quite different. But then, it was Moon she was interested in talking to. I was just the help. Of course, it was a little disconcerting, after all we had been through, to be ignored; but I was no stranger to the role of the session musician — the producer is often more amanuensis than Svengali — so I just tried to behave as if we were still in the studio.
A wave of uneasiness swept over the owls as Moon turned to face the newcomer and bowed. The lead owl rustled its feathers audibly, and the others started shuffling on their perches, shifting from foot to foot. Then, one by one, they rose and flapped slowly away, clumsy as over-grown bumble-bees as they lurched drunkenly off into the forest. A few of them hooted lugubriously, as if in protest at the disturbance.
The woman laughed. “Oh, come now,” she said in a voice scarcely less deep and mysterious than those of her feathered companions. “You must know the owls are not what they seem.”
“They’re not?” asked Moon foolishly. I wasn’t sure whether she was really interested, or whether she was just testing her. “So what are they, then?”
“Oh, wisdom incarnate,” the Green Lady replied, without missing a beat. “Messengers of Hecate. Avatars of the flower goddess turned predator. Female counterparts of that constantly priapic, delinquent upstart of a goat god you’ve been having trouble with… Except the owls are much wilder and smarter, of course, and they haven’t had all their senses poisoned by a massive dose of testosterone…
“You’re the musicians, right?” she continued. “We hear you, out under the beech trees. You keep the rhythm…” She waved a loose wrist vaguely towards my side of the ruin. “And you sing. And you need your friend back.”
It wasn’t a question, but Moon nodded anyway.
“She’s in the forest.” Which is something we knew already, but we didn’t argue. Perhaps she had a fondness for stating the obvious. “We can help you with that. Rescuing damsels is almost a speciality. Just follow our dust.”
And then she did the most astonishing thing. She flung back her head and screamed. Shrieked. Screeched like an owl.
Her yellow eyes twinkled, and for a moment I had the impression that her ears were getting longer, sprouting tufts of something that looked like fur or feathers, till they stood out like the twin points of a crescent moon, glimpsed through the leaves of an ancient beech coppice at midnight. Like the imperial diadem of Diana the huntress. Like horns. And then, as she started to unbutton her bodice, I caught a definite flash of feathers — silky white on her belly; tawny brown as they spread to her wings — though somehow, for a while, she had hands as well. Like the partially metamorphosed figure of one of those stolen Indian goddesses you find in the dusty corners of Victorian country houses, captured in pale, mottled stone.
Her body rippled one last time, almost as if she was preening, though at the same time it had something of the quality of a heat devil on a sun-baked cart track at the height of the harvest. And then, all of a sudden, we found ourselves confronted by an unusually large owl, standing in a jumbled pile of the Green Lady’s clothing, though bizarrely still adorned in her bangles and gewgaws.
The owl winked at us suggestively, switching eyes in a complex pattern, as if she was trying to tell us something in some kind of perverse, woodland semaphore, but the meaning eluded me. Then she hooted and flapped away into the trees, and we followed.
Well, honestly, what else could we do?
The section of the forest into which she led us was darker and deeper than anything we had seen so far that evening. The oaks clung to the crumbly slopes at the edge of the water meadows like thousand-year-old gryphons, their massive roots twisted and inescapable and sinewy as talons. The beeches were as round and barrel-chested as the rukhs of an antique chess set. And in between the imposing stelae of the tree trunks, a merry brook laughed and gurgled its way through banks of wild iris and marigold. The sun hung low — fat and golden — ever nearer the distant summer horizon. And in the background, for the first time since we had set out from the studio, I could hear the drumming of hooves on bare stone and greensward.
We were getting closer, then.
As if to confirm my suspicions, a snatch of music, evidently played on a wooden flute or syrinx, came floating down from the upper end of the brook. A small cascade of pebbles rolled down the stream, and tumbled to a halt in the pool by my feet. I could feel my heart beating like a torrent. Finally, I sighed. Finally we were approaching the goat god’s Arcadian encampment; or what passed for an Arcadian encampment in the age-old forests of Middlesex.
At that, the owl swooped in to land, and suddenly she was a woman again, still festooned with pendants and necklaces, but clothed only in a faint down of feathers; brown and white, like a beech grove in moonlight. Like the labyrinthine tangle of a giant, immemorial briar. She turned, and I saw her human face topped by tufted ears, and below that the strangely hybrid form of her body, and I gasped. For she looked exactly like the claw-footed Lilith of Sumerian mythology: half woman, half wild thing, and never quite what our human morality thought she ought to be.
I glanced down at the claw marks she had left in the dust as she skipped forward, and to my astonishment they looked like perfectly formed pentacles, with the point to the rear. People tended to assume — at least in the admittedly trashy books that formed my entire working knowledge of — that the pentacle was meant to represent the stylised head of a goat. But it seemed it had a second and more feminine significance. That the magical power of wildness and five-fold hedone was not Pan’s alone.
“Oh, she’s beautiful,” cried Moon.
“She’s terrifying,” I corrected. “Rich and dark and passing strange… I feel as if I’ve taken a sip from the wrong bottle.”
“Or a different one, anyway…” Moon nodded. “A concentrated philtre of owl-light. It certainly makes a change form that cheap, red rot-gut preferred by the other side. Less irksome the morning after, too, I’d imagine.”
“You still think there’s going to be a morning after?” I asked.
“Of course there is. There’s always a morning after, just not the one you were expecting. You may have to close the furnace door and rub your eyes free of fairyland. But morning always follows the evening: dark and white and icy as the crackle of reverb through an empty speaker…”
And then I saw it, in the trees behind her: another figure emerging from the enveloping foliage like an apparition. Like a ghost.
I could see at once that the creature, whatever it was, had been human once, though it had evidently been some time since it had gone feral. Its face was stained and filthy, brown with grime and green with the juice of leaves. Its hair was thick and matted; while its clothing hung in rags around its skinny body, like a web of tattered cloth and blackness, offering tantalising glimpses of bare flesh underneath. I couldn’t tell whether it was male or female. Its arrival was accompanied by a distinct odour of mud and pheromones — a musky, earthy smell; more animal, than human — as i f we were being approached by a wild beast, and not someone we might have met at a party once, back in the day. In our old life. Before. On the other side.
And then the creature spoke.
“Moon? Jack?” Its voice was gravely, as if its vocal chords had got out of the habit of uttering anything but animal noises and inarticulate growling. “Moon, what are you doing here?”
“Dora!” Moon cried, rushing forward to embrace her, despite her filthy condition.
“Dora,” I repeated, my mind in a daze. But it was her. I could see the resemblance now, under the layers of dirt and forest detritus. She had some scratches on her arms, and she’d lost a lot of weight, but otherwise she looked to be in one piece.
“Mr P. likes them like this,” said another voice at my shoulder. I turned and found that the owl lady had come up behind me. Lilith. Hecate. The spirit of the trees. Whatever she was, really. “He likes them to go native. He gets off on it somehow.”
“Mr P.?” I asked stupidly.
“The goat. He has this idea he wants to breed a new species of moss maiden out of feral townies and party girls. Wayward artists and bohemians. This part of the wood is full of them. You can’t hoot in a holly bush without flushing some lost soul out of the undergrowth. It can get very annoying sometimes. I think it’s the transformation that actually interests him. The knowledge that he has taken someone young and pretty and civilised, and stripped her down to her animal core — her wild essence — simply by whistling. Flushed out the ghosts in her germ-line; the ancient and terrible germ-line of the primaeval grandmothers of Ur.
“And then he moves on…”
She paused, and peered back into the wood, her head cocked to one side in a strangely bird-like posture, as if listening for something.
“You should take her home now, before he turns up and makes a fuss,” she continued. “He doesn’t actually want her anymore, but he’s never one to miss the opportunity to defend his property rights. His proprietary strains. He’s so in thrall to his member, he can’t help himself, poor lamb. Kid, that is. Hormones, you know. Somehow it always seems to be his time of the month.”
And then she did an almost familiar thing. She flung back her head and screamed. Shrieked. Screeched like an owl. Again. `
I had a distinct sense of déjà vu. But before I had time to reflect on this, the trees started to ripple and change around us, and we found ourselves under a wild service tree in a quite different wood in the last remnants of the summer twilight.
I recognised the spot. We were on the site of the medieval ditch and bank at the back of Highgate Woods, another of the several scattered remnants of the Middlesex Forest.
The woods were emptying out in the approaching dusk, which was probably no bad thing in view of the state Dora was in. So we took her home and cleaned her up, and eventually she returned to the studio, and Starspawn’s first album, Cat People & Feral Maidens, was the result
Of course Dora was always a little strange after she came back. A little spacey. A little absent. But reading the folklore, that seems to be about normal for someone who has returned from fairyland, especially after such an extended visit. And at least we hadn’t all aged horribly or died, while she was away, as seems to be the case in so many of the stories. No-one would wish on her the fate of a latter day Dora van Winkle.
The record — and in those days we really did still make records — was a minor hit on the indie scene, and Starspawn graduated from the concert listings to the front page of the NME. (Their cover shot of Moon in a purple Tibetan smock, with her cherry pink guitar slung loosely to one side — like the witch’s wand in The Magic Circle by J.M. Waterhouse — became a classic, reproduced on pirated shoulder-bags and t-shirts for several years afterwards.) The band’s label was pleased with them, and over time they made three more CDs, not counting their Greatest Misses and an out-takes compilation. I stuck with them until about half-way through the second, but then Moon took over. Eventually she built herself her own studio, and set herself up as a producer. We were all doing it back then. Hers was in a converted farmhouse in Norfolk, and it came with its own stand of silver birch, and a stream, and a view out over the purple flowering heaths of the Breckland. Kind of like Real World in miniature. She did well for herself, but then she was always a smart woman.
Dora moved in with her pretty much as soon as the building work was finished. Greenstreet, too. The three of them still live there in a sweet little Victorian cottage next door. I’m not sure of their sleeping arrangements, and really, it’s none of my business, so I’ve never asked.
I produced records for the next twenty years or so, but then I got bored, so I took a long, slow trip around the world. To my amazement, the travel book I worked up out of my diaries became a best seller, and I still draw a nice income from what I got for the film rights; though in typical Hollywood fashion no film was ever made…
For all that, though, I never quite forgot my night in the forest, and what it did to us. And although the path never opened up for me again in later years — and honestly, I can’t say I’m sad about that — I do wonder about Dora sometimes. She went much deeper than the rest of us, and there was something quite seductive, even addictive about the other world. I can imagine it could be quite habit forming. And addiction, as we all know, has a way of coming back to haunt you.
The Breckland, like the Middlesex Forest, is another truly archaic piece of countryside. It was the original home of Queen Boudicca and the Iceni, and the weird coastal tree-stump circle of Woodhenge was found on the Norfolk shore just a few miles away. Its sandy heaths are still dotted with the remains of Celtic homesteads, Roman roads and antique woodlands; while the Peddar’s Way, one of the best preserved ancient tracks in Southern Britain, is just across the fence at the back of the studio. I can’t believe the otherworld can be far on a moonlit night. And Moon has retired there like that cliché of the music press — the reclusive, middle-aged rock star; shut away on her country estate, where she can indulge her every whim with a small group of her closest friends — out of sight of both the police and the public.
Times were, she’d have had to be male, of course, but we live in a post-modern age, and even in fairyland the spirit of the forest has been wilded. Lilith is Queen of the Night, and the shriek owls rule the rooftops, while Pan lurks in the bushes, playing silly love songs, faintly and dolefully.
He’s starting to look a little tired these days, poor lad, though he won’t admit it. It’s as if he doesn’t know the Arcadian centuries have been and gone, and the woods have a new song to sing. And like the owls in the trees, we’re all going to have to learn to dance on a Sunday.
I’ll be looking forward to it. And I’ll be expecting to see all of you, my listeners, at the party. In green and purple, and fur and feathers. The livery of the new millennium. In hedone and agape. In love.