The Flipping-Book Forest #1
"You've seen all this before," the woman informed him, staring at him from across the table. There was something in her voice that charmed and intimidated him, as most women charmed and intimidated him, but this was different. There was an intermingling of pity and sadness passing between her lips, almost as judgmental as guilt or as wistful as recognition. He frowned and shook his head, pretending that her words haven't harmed him deep down. He ignored her and set his concentration on the festival outside the bar, on the revelers hooting and shrieking and waving colorful ribbons as they paraded their old traditions through the town.
"Everything's here, as it was and always will be. You remember it."
"You're wrong," he told her. His shame betrayed his composure, shattering it like icicles in springtime; she was someone you didn't lie to, someone with whom you didn't put on masks or false airs. But he wanted, needed, to correct her, if only to dispel the cottony feeling in his limbs. "I've never been here in my life. Or lives, I should say, isn't that right? It stands to reason that since this is all just a dream, a manifestation or incarnation of the real world that I came up with, then this must be my dream life. This degree of hyperlucidity might be new to me, but even in a place like this, my memory is still strong enough. I've never been here before."
Ribbons shot past the window, strips of bright yellow, blue, green, and browned orange, distractions that the man was thankful for so he couldn't see the gaze of her lilac eyes. The goblins, pixies, hobs, humans, and all their exotic offspring were having fun out there, making merry and mayhem as the season—were there seasons in his dreams? Could time exist in a timeless realm, and could it be sectioned off into periods of changing climate? Did they pass one into another as seamless as quicksilver or did they stumble and falter like drunken party guests?—was changing. Flowing through the streets and thin alleyways like a flood were the sounds of pipes and drums, trumpets and guitars, to mix with the scent of warm cakes and cool wine.
"Do your delusions give you comfort, or are you merely seeking the pity you couldn't get somewhere else?"
He glared at her, wishing she'd stop and leave him alone. Her eyes were sparkling, bringing out the autumnal fire of her long wavy hair and drawing shadows on her grey-mocha skin. She wore a gown that reminded him of birch bark in both color and texture. She grabbed her large cup and drank deeply, never once blinking, never once taking her eyes off of him. Some of her drink escaped her mouth and traced her sharp chin in glittering violet. She paid it no mind.
"How petty would I have to be to do that?" he asked her, expecting no answer. She didn't give him any. "Anyway, I don't want to talk about things like that. Let's change the subject."
"If you wish."
It irked him when she said things like that—things that held no malicious glee or judgment but still conveyed them easily enough. Something exploded in a colorful flash outside, followed by the wild hooting of the crowd and a renewed vigor by the musicians. It seemed the crowd was slowly working itself into a mad fervor.
"They sound like they're having fun," he said, motioning with his cup to the window.
"It certainly does. Our celebrations here are always very bacchanalian, but the foundations on which their built are very serious."
"Let me guess. It's all about the cycles of life, death, and rebirth, right? Something to do with one thing passing on and the next coming up."
The look on her face was both a sneer and a leering grin. The sunlight caught her lips and turned them from bright wheat-gold to the burned-caramel color of whiskey.
She took another sip from her cup and said "How profound. You're incorrect, of course, but not far from the beam. I'm a little disappointed."
"Why's that," he asked. He didn't want to know, felt it would be better just to think her disappointment was there and unwarranted.
"Because I've told you all of this before. Don't you remember? Can't you recall any of this back then? The party, the music, my face? You're even drinking the same tea you were that first time. Nothing has changed."
"I did ask that we wouldn't talk about that," he said, adding a note of sourness in his voice that he'd hoped would quell any more offense. The birch-dressed woman stared at him, her eyes like the winds in an exotic garden, wondrous and suffocating. The front legs of a spider clutched at the rim of her ear. At once, the air seemed to have changed in the bar. The expression on the woman's face was indecipherable, neither one thing nor another.
"I'll tell you a little secret, you poor foolish boy," she whispered, and he didn't at all like how her voice had both dropped and risen an octave. She held him with her eyes, with her expressionless expression and the scent of her perfumes, deep woodlands and pools that had never been touched by life. "What you wish is not my concern. What you ask of me is something I don't even deign to consider. What dreams you make are of your own design; that you decided to come here again is on your own head, not mine. My, what a lovely sight."
She had turned to look out the window and he followed her gaze. Out there, the revelers were erecting straw effigies that they were lighting above a growing bonfire. A small goblin standing on the shoulders of others threw something into the blackening pile and the flames spat out in an array of vibrant and shifting colors, which drew the dusk tightly about its form. The shouting was becoming rampant, and silhouettes were leaping and running through the streets, chaos made joy.
He saw that the effigies were in the shape of animals, though what animals they were he couldn't say. The music had changed, too, becoming sonorous and creeping like a dirge wanting to be a ballad.
"This doesn't make any sense," he said, caging his face in his hands.
"Why not?" He heard from the lilt in her voice the slight smile playing on her features.
He could hear singing out there, the words setting off something in the back of his mind—had he heard that song before? It was like a chant, like a sad old story condensed into a song. He thought he could predict the next few words, his horror growing as tears rose up to coat his eyes.
He stammered, "In the dream, I thought I'd made it through. I thought that…this isn't supposed to be like this."
"Is that so?"
He looked up at her, wiping away the shameful tears. "I passed the trials, didn't I?" he said defensively.
Those honey-amber lips slowly tilted up into a grin, one sharp and gleaming canine tooth peeking out. The color of her eyes—pupil, iris, and sclera—changed to the dull black-yellow-green of toadskin. "Passed? You think you passed? Whatever made you think that?"
"What? But, I—."
"You don't enter the flipping-book forest by passing the trials. You don't hear our music by making it through the challenges."
The extent of her kindness was that she didn't laugh. She didn't need to; the scar inside him had opened up wide enough to swallow him.
"You poor boy. Poor foolish boy. A memory cannot help but be stained by perception, all objectivity lost to make of it a treasure, no matter how tarnished. You mean you really believe this is your first time here?"
Yes, because surely it was, wasn't it? He thought backward, back what felt like weeks ago but could just as easily have been ten minutes ago. The memory was there, a feeling of exhilaration after going through those three initial tests before coming here. But was the feeling his own, or was it something he'd made up? Was that slash of pride the only thing he brought with him from the waking world, to wrap himself in after suffering through those awful challenges? A sound began to swim in his mind, cutting through the joyous music, the mewling of a bear cub, the fearful-fearing roar of its mother, the hunting and snuffling of (Wolves? Hyenas?) pursuing predators. He'd saved them, he was sure of it, but why had the bear cub screamed so loud? Why had the mother chased him down instead of protecting her own child?
All of those trials had involved safety and protection, him acting as the bodyguard or savior to something. He was sure he had protected everything, everyone, but why did he remember faces twisted in surprise and horror, and no small amount declaring a hint of betrayal? Why were there other faces, faces that danced outside of his recollection and teased him with their lividness?
The song, that damn song. It was rolling in the cage of his skull, ordering him to weep, demanding that he shed tears—to wrack his body in the despair of contemplation.
Yes, he had been here before, long ago when he could look over the kitchen table of his old house only if he stood on tiptoes. He'd failed the trials then, and he'd entered the place the residents called the flipping-book forest, haunted and haunting city in the woods. The evening was on a rapid march; the sun was burying itself into the grim wavering treeline, and the party outside was still ramping up.
"Was it all really that important?" He wiped his eyes to reveal the woman staring mutely at him. "I mean, it wasn't like a pact or a vow or anything. Nothing as important as a promise."
He grimaced at his own feeble defense, wincing before he finished it; he hid his shame by holding his cup up to his lips. He tried to take a drink but his lips refused to bend to his will. She only nodded, not out of agreement but out of polite interest.
"Nothing bad happened to them," he said. "To the ones I couldn't save. Nothing bad happened. I swear I did everything I could, and even then there were things that had been out of my control. You know what I'm talking about, don't you? I did all that I could to save as many as I could, but those other ones…it wasn't my fault."
He was screaming now, petulant and child-like wailing that echoed around the diner. "It wasn't my fault, damn it! It wasn't me! I didn't do anything wrong, that's the truth!"
The woman was sneering at him, her face blurring beyond his teary stare. "What you perceive as truth can be of as much or as little consequence as you want, but that doesn't conceal the fact that it is only a perception. You, me, our city, our world, are all just little bubbles hiding the truth, hiding the most basic material. It's only when you brush the bubbles away and you see everything for what it really is, with all its glamour ceremoniously stripped away, that you can begin to exist. Not merely live, but exist."
He stared down at the table, wincing at each bout of screaming and laughter that tore through the window—any trace of good humor and festivity seemed to have fled with the sun, usurped by a sense of desperation. Joy had turned to madness. The man didn't want to be here anymore. He felt that its quaintness had already been lived through, and he wanted out, but he couldn't remember if he had ever heard of a way out of this place.
Ridiculous. If there's an entrance, there's an exit.
He looked up at her, wiping his face and trying to hide his flamed cheeks. "So it doesn't really matter, does it? Is that what you're saying?"
The woman's sneer disappeared, softened and melted back into that blank look. "Does it matter to you? That's really the crux of it all, foolish boy. Does it matter to you what happens to the people in your dreams?"
She waited for him to respond, and when he wouldn't, could only offer choked sobs, she stood up, grabbed her mug, and walked away. He supposed she thought that was answer enough. There was a bell above the door fashioned from dark fulgurite that usually sang out in salutation; the bell did not ring when she opened the door and passed through into the evening.
After a time, he could hear her voice added to the cacophony in the streets. The music was revolving into a storm, a hurricane force of rhythmic sound. The boy, the man, decided that once the tears stopped coming and his shaking had subsided, he would finish his cold tea, pay at the counter, walk out into the street, and add his own voice to the gale. If he was lucky, maybe it would drown out the other sounds.