In The Forest Of The Queen
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Aymon Bock was not taken with the Montsec American Monument. It seemed inflated: a Doughboys' monster donut, dominating a landscape that really didn't need any more reminders of war and death. Surely the hectares of white crosses, another thick-sown field of them every time you turned a bend, were sufficient? The only way to escape the thing was to drive up there, which Aymon and his wife Viola duly did. They left the car, climbed a momentous flight of steps and walked around the circuit of massive fluted columns. Built in 1930, damaged in WWII, restored 1948.

"Designed by Egerton Swartwout," remarked Viola. "Sounds like a German name, and it looks like Nazi architecture, isn't that ironic."

'The Doughboys didn't fight Nazis. They were here in 1918, they fought one of the last great battles of the Great War, down there below-"

Viola sighed and nodded. She knew all about the Doughboys of the American Expeditionary Force, their gallant part in licking Kaiser Bill; the various rationales suggested for that nickname (the dumpling shape of an Infantryman's buttons, the dust of battle, a derogatory reference to apprentice bakers' boys. . .) The Doughboys were the reason, or one of the reasons, for this pilgrimage to North Eastern France.

The only other visitor was a stooped young man in mis-matched tweed jacket and tan chinos, laden with camera equipment, who did not have kin remembered here, he was just interested in the AEF. So Amon was in his element: pointing out his great-grandfather's name, explaining the strategic importance of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, General John J Pershing's objectives, the difficulties that beset the American boys, in their biggest operation on French soil -and Viola was released to gaze in peace at the landscape of what had been the "St Mihiel Salient". The wooded ridges, the lush green, lake-dotted plain, the tide of forest lapping at its shore.

Aymon remembered that his penchant for talking to strangers tended to get him into trouble with Viola, and he wanted her on his side, today of all days. He bid the young man from Kentucky a courteous goodbye, before he'd even scratched the surface of his knowledge, and came to join her.

"It looks so peaceful now."

"Did you know," said Viola, "this is still one of the most sparsely populated areas in Europe? Right here, practically next door to Paris, and all those big, packed, developed cities? It's a boneyard, a graveyard, a derelict munitions dump. I warned you. Didn't I warn you? The eastern flank of La Belle France is just battlefield after battlefield. Who'd want to come here, work here? How do you plan to attract the good people?"

"Money," said Aymon. "Space, freedom, natural beauty. You're so wrong: this location is perfect. We'll be fighting them off with sticks."

Aymon Bock was an extremely wealthy man. He'd been loaded before he was thirty, avoided getting his fingers burned in a long career of daring start-ups; and finally, in what he still felt was youthful middle age, he wanted to give something back. He looked on the grinning slackers who were this generation's overnight billionaires, not with envy but with trepidation; and felt his long-ago hippie roots stirring. He meant to do something good, and since this region of France was (according to family legend) his ancestral home, he had chosen the forests of Argonne for the site of his Foundation. Having a French son-in-law also helped; though Jean-Raoul had been almost as hard to convince as Viola herself.

"There's another Great War going on, Vi. The world's in crisis, don't you understand that? The Bock Foundation is going to be a beacon in the storm: here, where my people came from. I'm the one to do it, I know I am. I have the experience, the talent for spotting ventures that will fly, and for hiring the guys, the scientists, the technologists, who are really going places. I'm tired of all the defeatism, the denial and plain lies. It's time to get organised, pull together, and see this Global Warming, Climate Change bogey for what it is: a dazzling opportunity. A new industrial revolution."

"You're such a romantic. If you want to be a war hero like your great-grand daddy was, why don't you set up a Sustainable Technology Centre in the Sudan? Or closer to home, in Down South, Black Hispanic USA, the newest Desperate Developing Nation on the block?"

"I give a heap of money away to good causes, Vi. You know I do. But it's pouring water in a bucket full of holes: and you know that too. A man like me, with my expertise, is better employed turning out new buckets."

"Those Developing Nations," remarked Viola, heading for the steps, "can be such a hassle to deal with. Where there's human suffering there's dirty politics. Business dies, and God forbid Aymon Bock should get his fingers burned at last."

"I'm doing this for you, too. It's going to reboot your career. You're going to design for me."

"Now you're talking crazy. Designers have to be cool, and middle-aged women are not cool. Only youth is cool, in a woman."

"That's ridiculous! That's antedeluvian thinking, this is the Age of the Grey Tigress. What about Vivienne Westwood?"

"She's in fashion and she's pushing seventy. Thanks a lot."

"Hell, did I say the Bock Foundation? I misspoke myself. It's going to be the Viola Canning Bock Foundation."

Viola laughed, touched inspite of herself. Say what you like about Aymon Bock, he could do irony: he could laugh at himself. She took a vintage Hermès scarf from her $6,000 shoulder bag, and tied it over her hair, Grace Kelly style. He liked to drive the gun-metal Aston Martin he'd chosen for this trip with the top down, and the wind in his golf-tan wrinkles. Of course he did.

She was a disappointment to her husband because she'd taken a career break, long ago, and never got around to mending it. She couldn't convince him that it would be madness for her to return to the fray: a wealthy woman, playing with her husband's newest toy. She'd be a laughing stock. But Ay's own "career" was in the same state. The money produced itself now, without Aymon's assistance: churning out mounds and mounds of cash, like that infernal salt mill in the fairytale. The money-maker and his wife were over. They were on the downslope, and this eco-technology fantasy just proved it.

"We're barely middle-aged," cried Aymon, as they drove away. "We have half our lives ahead!" . . . A
nd went off into one of his one-man brainstorms: Microgeneration. Virtual Tourism. The billions to be made in the development of efficient recycling. Get the basic patents, the ones that are going to change the entire world. . . We are both drowning, thought Viola, fully aware that her age was no excuse for anomie. We are both lost, we've always been lost. It's just that Ay doesn't know it. And deep inside her, like a tiny stone fetus curled around her heart, she felt what she might have been: shining, shining.

Discontent was all she had left, her only proof that life could have been better, could have been wonderful-
Down on the plain, when they reached the boundary of Aymon's new real estate, there was certainly a sense of crossing some kind of crucial border. The wide fields of ethanol-fated corn (where Aymon muttered about the dumb European energy policy, not yet woken up to the exploded concept of biofuels) had given way to water meadow, then suddenly they faced a wall of trees. There was no signage. The road surface, equally suddenly, deteriorated to dirt, with a few scabby patches of asphalt.

"Are you sure this is the right place?"

Aymon had been enlarging on the fortunate partnership of Jean-Raoul and Madeleine. Their daughter the biochemist, brilliant and flighty, who'd taken up computer science as a sideline, currently spent her time modelling neurotransmitters, out in the wild blue yonder. Jean-Raoul Martigny, however, was a scientist with a sound business mind, always took Aymon's advice, understood that sustainable dies if it means non-profit-making.He paused in this pleasurable rant -leaving Maddy with her head in the clouds, Raoul with his feet on the ground- and punched up the help menus on the dashboard map.

"Heck. Something's wrong with this-"

The Aston Martin was a beautiful car, and as guilt-free as a classic performance roadster can well be, but its subsystems had proved unreliable. Or else there was something in the air, interfering with the signal. . . Aymon could feel the prickling heaviness, an electric storm on the way. There was an old man watching them from the edge of the trees. A welcome sight, in the ringing, silent emptiness of this countryside, where you could hardly believe that crowded old Western Europe was all around. Aymon had pulled up, meaning to try some diagnostics. He leaned out, and made his inquiry. The old fellow set down his axe -he really was carrying a long-handled, ancient-looking axe- and came ambling over, cautious of his joints as the Tin Woodsman.

"Hi," said Aymon, ever trustful of the universal power of the English language. "Would you mind telling us where we are, sir?"

The old fellow stared at the foreign car as if he'd never seen anything like it, and said something Aymon didn't catch at all, except that the word forêt was in there. Viola explained the problem, in her passable French. The Tin Woodsman scratched his seamed and bristly chin, peered into the car and looked long at their GPS screen, shaking his head and murmuring: a voluble excursion, presumably in the local dialect, from which Viola could only snag "unbelievable!" She tried again, and managed to learn that he'd never heard of the projected Bock Foundation, and didn't recognise the number of the minor Departmental Road they were looking for-

"But there are roads through the forest?," she persisted, still in French.

The old man looked completely blank, a senior moment, then he spoke again, in a careful, strangely-accented English. "There are plenty of paths." He smiled. "Perhaps too many. You can go in, easily. But you may not come out." He nodded, pleased with his joke, and went back to his axe.

"Let's go," snapped Viola. "We were heading in the right direction five minutes ago. And we have the paper maps. "

"What a damned language," remarked Aymon, consolingly, as they passed into the embrace of the trees, and the world behind disappeared. "Don't feel bad. It's okay in print, but I can never understand a word when they start talking. Beyond restaurant dialogue, anyhow."

"I understand French. I can't do quaint dialects."

"Yeah, well. They always remember a little English in the end."

The forest had a placid, timeless air of expectation: as if it had been waiting for them, and welcomed them with quiet satisfaction. The trees were poplar and ash, oak, beech and hazel, and other nameless European species. None of any great size. The understory was a mass of climbers, vines, briars and ferns: but there was nothing sinister, no dripping, ghostly lichens. Still no signage, and the GPS screen was a fuzz of grey. Aymon grinned at his wife, and took a turn at random down another of the dirt-paved tracks. He drove slowly, appreciating the experience. Strangely, although the driving surface was horrible, the broad verges were evenly shorn to the height of a healthy suburban lawn. Maybe the Tin Woodsman came down here weekly, on a horse-drawn mower-

"Are you trying to get us lost? I should be throwing out a trail of breadcrumbs," Viola commented, uneasily.

"I want to get a feel for the place, never been here in the flesh before. We'll meet a landmark of some kind soon. If we don't, there's a compass on the dash. You're sure we have the right numero in that map folder of yours?"

Viola was not sure. She kept paper maps out of nostalgia for the old days, when she'd been the map-navigating queen of their travels; but she'd come to rely on that fickle modern technology. . . She decided, in the interests of marital harmony, that she wouldn't check the folder yet.
Aymon had been noticing long, regular shapes among the trees by the roadside: mostly wrapped in some kind of tarp. Then he saw the numbered tags, like mailboxes without the mailbox, and it dawned on him that he was seeing cords of firewood. The forest belonged to the commune; to the local people. It was not farmed for timber, it was portioned out, household by household, for winter fuel; sound energy policy for a change. This was one of the rights he'd agreed to respect, for an interim period, while he investigated the issue. But now the woodpiles, the dismembered flesh of the wood laid out like that, right under the noses of the living trees, were somehow very disturbing. He found himself wondering how the forest felt about the arrangement. Death by inches, endlessly repeated. Reminded him of the story of the hillbilly with the three-legged pig.

"A hog as good as that, you don't eat him all at once. . ."

Viola felt nothing, except a practical concern about the coming storm -something in the air, not exactly oppressive, but electric. She looked up. The sun was invisible, the flowing band of sky was cloudless, a billowing deep blue canopy, a bride's train, a robe. . . At last they reached a crossing place where several tracks met, around an open green crown. Aymon pulled up, carefully parallel to the mown grass, as if he feared a sudden rush of traffic. The sun was still invisible, the electric sky without a cloud, the forest vistas unbroken. A jaybird flashed across the clearing and called loudly, one indignant note. They smiled at each other.

"The old guy said we were 'À L'Orée de la Forêt de la Reine'," said Viola. "On the threshold of the Forest of the Queen. So we're in the right woods, unless there are multiple Queens' Forests around here. Which queen was it, Ay? When did she reign? What was her name?"

"I don't remember. Could be Marie-Antoinette for all I know. The history's on file, it's in the documents, we can find out. Let's take a walk."

"Not out of sight of the car."

"Okay, okay. . . Hey, I have my pocket knife, I'll cut flashes on the trees. It's just a small, suburban, European forest, honey. It won't bite."

"Oh no? I bet there are mosquitoes."

"So bring your repellent."

Aymon didn't suffer from mosquito bites. Viola hated them, and hated the smell of any effective repellent, but she shared his mood. There was something about this place that made you want to let go and drift. . . They took one of the tracks, deeper into the world of green. There were mosquitoes. She stopped to anoint her bare legs and stooped lower, curious about the texture of the turf. It didn't seem to have been mown recently, every shining blade was pristine, curved like a baby's fingernail-

"What's the matter?"

She was startled at the edge on his voice. Was the forest, like Viola, a disappointment? Or was he spooked? She felt a little spooked herself: the enticing lethargy had a thread of tension in it, a tug of adrenalin. An insect, a butterfly with pretty marbled wings, looked up at her from the grassblades under her nose, and seemed to wink one of its faceted eyes.

What the hell-?

"A butterfly. A really tiny one, very pretty. It's gone now."

"I wonder who does the mowing," muttered Aymon. "And why. What for? I don't see this as a picnic spot-"

But the reproach of the living harvest, those piles of dead limbs, had aroused his defiance, so he proposed they leave the path. Viola followed him without a murmur, though she was hardly dressed for it. She prided herself on her docility: it was one way of dealing with constant low-level despair. Aymon could complain of her negativity, her lack of enthusiasm, her sarcasm. He could never call her high maintenance.

She picked her way, getting scratched, hoping this would soon be over. Aymon kept stopping and peering at bark, examining leaves. She knew he was looking for an unusual bug to match the "pretty butterfly" he'd missed. It was one of his strengths, maybe all wealthy men were the same. He was always playing to win, every second, on every scale. It could be exhausting. But it was Viola who first noticed that the leaf mould underfoot was alive with hopping, creeping dark-skinned little frogs.

"My God."

"So many of them-" whispered Viola, horrified, afraid to take another step, repulsed at the thought of carnage on her shoe soles.

"My God," breathed Aymon again. "Now I call that a good omen. So much for the world wide catastrophic decline of amphibians."

He managed to catch one of the critters without crushing it, and held it up to his eye, threadlike limbs dangling. It had a pointed snout, and two green stripes down its crooked back, that glittered when they caught the light and disappeared in shadow. Its irises were striated gold around the slippery, bulging pupils. The frog grinned toothlessly, and Aymon laughed. His unease vanished. He felt innocent and adventurous, like a little boy-

"These little guys are having a ball."

"My watch has stopped," announced Viola, rummaging in her oversized, arm-and-a-leg purse. "Damn, and my cell seems to have run out of charge, however that happened. What time is it?"

"About mid-afternoon. It doesn't matter, does it?"

She looked up. He'd dropped the frog and his hands were dug so deeply into his pants pockets that both his wrists were hidden. She guessed at once that his watch had stopped too, and a chill ran down her spine.

"Where's your cell, Ay?"

"Calm down honey, what's the panic? It's in the car."

They could not see the car. Every direction looked the same.
Something has happened, thought Viola. I felt it, when we drove in here. Wild thoughts went through her mind. Hostage-takers with some kind of ray, killing their digital communications. Electro-Magnetic Pulse, the Third World War, UFOs, a natural disaster-

"We left the fucking car wide open," she said. "These trees all look identical, and there's just about to be a cloudburst."

"We can retrace our steps. You stay where you are, marking our last known position, I'll cast around for our footprints."

He cast around, examining the leaf mould and the creepers. Viola doubted if even Aymon could suddenly acquire finely-honed tracker skills, from nowhere. She stayed put because she hated the idea of taking another step into chaos, and stared all around her: intently, slowly-

"Aymon! There's light over there! Sunlight, it must be the clearing where we left the car!"

"No, it's not, honey. It can't be. You're pointing downhill, we were coming downhill. We left the car on kind of a hilltop, don't you remember?"

"I can see buildings."

She was right. Aymon could see the leaf-broken outlines too: hard to say what kind of buildings, they could be in ruin. . . Defiantly, silently daring her to laugh, he took out his pocket knife and sliced a rectangle of white bark from the pink flesh of a birch tree beside him. "I'm going to go on doing that. So can get back to here, whatever else."

"Go ahead. Be a vandal."

The sunlight lay over the valley of a clear brown stream that ran between beds of flowering rushes. Fine trees, untramelled by close neighbours, grew on the natural turf on either side. There was a footpath, well-maintained if not well-trodden, and the buildings they'd seen were close. They saw white weatherboard and cranky little gabled roofs, a crooked white wooden bridge, the glimmer and the laughter of a modest weir-

"It's an old mill," said Aymon.

"So now you know where we are?"

He shrugged. "If you'd taken an interest, you'd know there are several of them on the property, all disused."

"Oh my God, look at that!" cried Viola.

But what she'd taken for an exquisite glass statue, a naked, transparent young woman crouching in the stream, was gone at a second glance. All she could see was a mass of iridescent, blue-green damselflies, demoiselles, darting over the surface. The cloud of wings suggesting, maybe, the turn of a girl's smooth shoulder, the waves of her hair-
"How perfectly lovely," she finished, uncertainly.

"Told you." Aymon beamed, striding along. I will make her happy, he thought. I will do one great deed before I die, and she'll be proud. "I told you. This place is a dream. It's going to be great, inspirational, relaxed: our people will love to work here."

He was somewhat piqued to discover that the "disused mill" seemed to be in use, as a shabby old-fashioned forest information point. They wandered the covered porches, looking at quaint, half-effaced pictureboards. Forest animals, birds, flowers-

"Did you know about this, Ay?"

"I don't exactly remember."

He was looking for a map of the forest (tourist guide shack like this has to have a map, even if it's out of date) He couldn't find one, but he discovered that if he looked at the picture boards directly, with attention, they changed. The animals, birds and plants came alive, he couldn't put it any more clearly. As if something extra was passing from the vaguely suggested images directly through his eyes to his brain. They were more than alive, they were conscious, these images were the creatures themselves, looking back at him, wise and wicked, fun to know, but by no means entirely friendly-

He was fascinated, and passed from one array to another for several minutes (for time without measure) before he noticed how weird this was, and began to get scared. What the hell have I eaten, drunk, smoked, today: without knowing it? Was there something in the slimy skin of those tiny frogs? Some hallucinogen that passed through my skin?

A door opened, and a young woman came out, smiling. She wore a full-sleeved, black, belted smock and cap, with a white bib and collar at the throat -like an old-fashioned nun; except that her slim brown legs and feet were bare. She greeted them in pretty French, which for once they found easy to understand, announced herself as the gardienne of this Centre, and ushered them inside. The room she showed them was a store, selling natural forest products: toiletries, herbal infusions, food and candy: not the usual tourist lines, but genuinely unusual, quirky products Viola was charmed. Aymon followed her around, grinning loosely: feeling young again.

"Do you take cash or cards?" asked Viola, hoping she had enough euros. There was no sign of a paypoint or a till, nothing to suggest the twentyfirst century at all.

The little gardienne dipped her head. "We accept all the usual kinds of currency, or credit. Would Madame and Monsieur like to take something to drink? We have tables on the terrace."

She brought them eglantine tea in the souvenir forest china, which was patterned in blue-green, iridescent as a damselfly's wings. They were the only customers on the rustic terrace above the weir. It was the kind of place, thought Viola, where you want to be the only customers, you want to have discovered a hidden treasure. But it was a little disquieting.

"I wonder what happens in the other buildings."

"I wonder where they've hidden the damn car park," growled Aymon, trying to frown, to mask his drug experience. "It's got to be around here somewhere. Hidden up in the canopy, maybe, with the big butterflies-"

Viola's attention had been caught by a frog on a lily pad, on the water right below the rail beside their table. He was bright green all over, and much larger than the minute creatures teeming on the forest floor, maybe the size of the palm of her hand. Or larger than that: it was hard to be sure of the scale of him, there was a trick of perspective-
The frog looked up, bright eyed, beamed at her and began to sing.

"Dedans ma chaumière
Pour y vivre heureux
Combien faut-il être?
Il faut être deux. . ."

Or rather, he began to croak: but it wasn't a bad voice, not at all.

In my li-tel co-ttage,
what do I need there?
for to be so happy,
what I need is you!

The words, that turned to English in her head with no effort at all, seemed so charming. And his bright eyes, his lipless, toothless grin, were so lively, so funny; and, if this wasn't too ridiculous, decidedly sexual-

"Oui ma chaumière,
Je la préfère!
Avec toi, oui avec moi
Avec toi, oui avec moi!
Au palais d'un roi.. .!"

"I think I'll take a little walk," said Viola, abruptly: very startled by the feelings she was getting about that frog-


She thought she was abrupt, but thankfully Aymon didn't seem to care. He seemed content with his own thoughts, his own daydreams, whatever was happening to him. . . She knew she should find the Ladies' Room, splash her face, recover her poise. Instead, on a whim, she walked by the stream. The tender grass that had never been mown was starred with secret flowers. She knelt and dug into it with her fingers. The dirt itself was jewelled complexity, shimmering and edgy with endless life. The deeper you looked the more you saw. Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere tiny knowing eyes looked back at you. . .

Something gleaming on the ground attracted her attention. She followed the gleam and found a golden corpse, lying as if annealed into the earth, the limbs and trunk sealed together and shining, shining, the face half-hidden by polished waves of hair. Now she had found a dead body, no wonder the forest had felt spooky. She bent for a closer look, knowing she must touch nothing, because this was a murder mystery and she would destroy the evidence. But the golden corpse sat up, the glimmering girl fled, leaving only a forest boulder; and Viola had never seen her face. Even stone is alive, stone is the mineral matrix of all life. It was the queen, she thought.

"That was the queen-" croaked the frog.

He must have followed her from the terrace. Did he really have a tiny yellow Disneyfied crown perched on his head? Could that happen? He winked at her and began to dance, hopping from one webbed, splay-toed foot to the other, singing the chorus of his French folksong, English in Viola's head:

Oh yes, my little home!
I would prefer it,
For you and me, for you and me
For you and me, for you and me
To the pa-lace of a king!

This time she went with the feeling. She jumped into his arms, the frog grabbed her and held her tight. He became mansized, and outrageously, unamphibianly male. They were swimming in the millpool now, and a wanton, winged companion, great-eyed, androgynous and slender, hovered over them, making its wishes plain. Viola and the frog kissed and parted, Viola passed happily to the other partner. They went zooming away, over the shining surface of the water, their wings shivering in delight, hooked up en soixante-neuf , never had an orgasm like it, excitement, innocence and delight such as she hadn't known since, since, since forever-
Life is wonderful.

"You have very old-fashioned minds," confided the gardienne, as she handed over several exquisitely wrapped packages, in a delightful raw raffia bag. "May I ask where are you from?"

"From the USA," confessed Viola, knowing this was not always a good answer in Europe. She had raided the store. The taste of eglantine tea was still on her lips: she hoped she'd remembered to buy a box of those relaxing tisanes, she was a little hazy about the last few minutes-

"Ah!" said the gardienne, dipping her round black head, as if this explained everything (although, Viola thought, in fact the little nun was completely mystified, something lost in translation again). "Many thanks for your visit. Please come again."

They followed the flashes Aymon had cut in tree bark, back to the "last known position", without any trouble. Maybe their eyes were better accustomed to the veil of green now, or maybe there'd been a touch of needless panic earlier. They spotted the gun-metal Aston Martin immediately, parked in that clearing, no more than a couple of hundred yards away.

"You see," said Aymon. "We were never lost."

Viola stood on one foot and then the other, to shake scraps of leaf mould and bark out of her sandals. "We'd better hurry. There's going to be a thunderstorm, I can feel it."

Aymon took his best guesses at the route out, using the compass on the dash (there was still nothing but grey fuzz on their GPS). Eventually they saw an ochre-washed cottage standing by the track, though as yet no tyre marks, no vehicles, no signage, no human activity. Aymon pulled up and jumped out, eagerly. "Civilisation! C'mon, you're the linguist, you do the talking-"

But the forest grew right up to the stained, derelict walls, swamping what had been a little railed yard. "I don't think so, Ay."

The cottage had been walled up. The bricked door and boarded windows stared at the intruders, somehow stirring inexpressible emotions. . . "There's a plaque on the wall," said Aymon.

Viola kept her distance, nervous as wild animal. "It's an old forester's house," he reported. "It's been fitted out as a bat refuge, a kind of memorial thing, wait there's more, think I can find out where we are."
Aymon knew that there was a village called Boucq around here. He'd never nailed the geneaology (people who check out their family legends generally find things they wish they didn't know); but he believed the Bocks had come from there, long ago. And here was the name itself, on this Bat Refuge plaque, but strangely, it was the English spelling. . .
"Let's get back on the road. I don't need to know about bats."

"Did you find out where we are?"

"No. We'll find out by driving, we have to hit a real road soon."

She sighed, concluding that his ability to read French had betrayed him: better not press the point. They returned to the car. Aymon punched the button, at last (always reluctant to give up the freedom of the open-top). The roof performed its slick, robotic manoeuvre, and they looked at each other, sealed and safe. Soon after that, the GPS screen came back to life.

"Now do we know where we are?"

"Never in doubt," said Aymon.

Almost immediately they reached a junction, and they were back in the world of traffic, of powerlines, of isolated farms and miles of corn; and the sky finally opened. But Viola felt -maybe it was the sudden attack of the rain-as if the country had changed, as if she had to start "being in France" all over again, in much less confident key. She remembered her purchases, and couldn't think what she'd done with them. Nothing in her purse. Where was that pretty raffia bag? Her arms ached with emptiness.

"What's the matter?"

"Nothing. . .really."

He kept his eyes on the streaming grey road. "Honey? Did you notice anything strange about that place we found?"

She'd have denied everything, doubting her sanity and/or the eglantine tea, but the tremor in his voice convinced her to speak. "I'm not sure. Tricks of the light, maybe. Or things I can't explain.'

"Did you see the girl in black, the gardienne, turn into a water bird?"

"I didn't see that. Did you see the transparent girl in the stream?"

"No. But I saw those tall pink flowers, the rushes, come alive, and turn into, er, people. What happened to you? After you followed that dragonfly?"

"Damselfly." Viola shook her head, realising with a shock that she wanted to tell him all about it, but not right now, not in a moving car. "I don't want to say, not yet. Aymon, what happened to us, where have we been?"

"You mean what did we take?" he countered, with a tight grin.

The windscreen wipers fought with pounding grey battalions.

"I don't believe that. Oh, I know we took the eglantine tea, but we were in another world before that. You know it. You and that tiny frog, the way you were, you were communing with each other. Aymon, we should compare notes. We should do it right now, before we lose our nerve, before we stop believing."

The rain was so hard he could see nothing but the starred red tail-lights of the truck ahead of him. The two lane road was narrow, crowded, no chance to overtake. Aymon's heart was racing, better maintain the speed of the traffic but it felt too fast, almost uncontrollable-
Viola pressed her hand to her mouth.

"In another world, my God. I've heard of a story like this, Ay, it's famous. . . Two English women were visiting Versailles, in the nineteen twenties, no, earlier. They had a strange experience and published it, they called it 'An Adventure'. They believed they'd been through a timeslip, back to 10th August 1792. They'd visited the Petit Trianon in the days of Marie Antoinette, and seen the queen herself-"

"It wasn't Marie-Antoinette." Aymon gripped the wheel fiercely. "The Queen of that forest was not Marie-Antoinette."

"That's not what I'm saying. The account the authors of 'An Adventure' published didn't check out. It's famous as a hoax. But I think they'd added stuff, because something incredible had happened to them, and they, they wanted people to believe. That's why we have to get this straight, you and I, now. Pull over, next chance you get-"

"Did you see the animal images on those boards come alive? As if they were getting directly into your brain, and looking back at you ?"

"No, but I. . . something like that. Did you see the singing frog?"

"I've got a better idea. I'm going to find somewhere to pull over, a quiet spot, maybe a bar tabac. We're going to call Piper, right now, tell her the whole thing, have her record it."

Bette Piper was Aymon's long time personal assistant, a very smart woman whom they both trusted implicitly.

"Yeah, yeah! Great idea, let's do it!"

Viola felt twenty, thirty years younger. She felt as if something inside had shattered and been remade. She had a mission, a cause, this would be big, she had her own instincts, she could almost taste it. The natural world is alive, sexual, conscious, full of living spirits, I'll write a book, a bestseller-

"The nearest I can come," she exclaimed, imagining the tv audience, trying out her lines on him, "to putting a name on what happened to us, is to say that we visited Fairyland. That's not adequate, but it's the word people have used, traditionally, for the dimension we entered: where, where every flower is conscious, and nature spirits inhabit insects, animals-"

"Fairyland???" Aymon exploded, hands still locked on the wheel, eyes fixed on those blurred tail-lights. "What the fuck? You are shitting me, honey. That was a timeslip. That was my future we visited. That was the future. Shit, those noticeboards: I can almost figure it. Information coded in light, direct to the cortex, and hijacking the processes of consciousness, that's what causes that weird 'everything is looking at me' effect-"

"SHUT UP!" shouted Viola. "Shut up, shut up. You and your codes!"

He held the wheel, but inside he was shaking, reliving the moment when -spelling out that memorial plaque- he'd had the strangest conviction that if he read another word he'd discover the date of his own death. He knew he was right, oh God, he knew. But it was a crass error to shoot her down, far more important to get her to talk, get her experience on record: before vital clues to those unborn developments were lost-

"Okay, okay. I'm sorry, honey, calm down, didn't mean to offend."

"Maybe we're both right," whispered Viola, marvelling. "Maybe the future is a fairyland, and that's what we have glimpsed-"

A tiny voice in his ear brought Aymon up short. He gripped the wheel harder, his eyes bulging. He couldn't make out what the voice was saying, but he could see a little figure squirming up out of the walnut fascia, a tiny face, incredibly malevolent, made of polished wood grain, a flayed body-

"Think of the consequences!" it squeaked, waving its knobbly little arms. "Where is your evidence? What did you bring back? Nothing! No one will believe you. You'll be treated as cranks! You will be ridiculed!"

Hordes more of them, a different variety, came pouring out of the strengthened glass and flew around their heads, jabbering urgently, flickering in and out of focus, liquid and abrasive.

"They will say you have ingested illegal substances, your trusted assistant will report you to the authorities, you will be ruined!"

Multicoloured creatures whose bodies were ever-shifting crowns and chains came out of the door panels and the floor, and cried out, passionately-

"We are not life, we were once life, deep in the ancient fern-forest time: we are naked chemicals, stripped and crucified now. Beware, beware,Viola! Our cousins in your brain have told us this: your happiness will vanish, if you betray your lovers."

"Don't betray us! Don't betray us! We never betrayed you! Cowards! Cowards!"

The Eygptian Cotton fairies danced on Aymon's shoulder, pleading to be heard, telling him how they had been forced to ruin their mother, the good earth, and after that shame, tortured into thread-

"And think, if you are believed," shouted the Parisian artisan leather spirits, crawling out of the sleek hide of Viola's purse. "If your visit can be detected as changes in your brain chemistry? What then? By interfering, by trying to make it happen, you may destroy the very salvation that you have glimpsed, that you so desire, and it may never come to be-!"

Viola had succumbed to hysterics, she was trying to open the passenger door, sobbing and batting at the glass-sprites.

Never come to be, never come to be, hissed the whisper in Aymon's ear, not a single voice but a varied choir: in fact the voices of the different materials confined in his pacemaker. He struggled to go on driving, though his heart was jumping like a jack-hammer, convinced, like his wife, that there was hope in flight. . . But the rain kept raining madly, the tail-lights were too close, and a party of young male deer, inspired by who knows what diablerie, decided to bolt across the road ahead of that truck, bounding from the forest margin.

"Ay!" yelled Viola, terrified out of her panic attack-

Aymon failed to apply the brakes, probably because he had already succumbed to a fatal heart attack. Viola, who had unclipped her seat belt whilst trying to escape, went through the windscreen, despite its toughness. She was technically alive when the Emergency Services arrived, but she never recovered consciousness, and died on the way to the hospital.

The Woodsman put away his axe. Many members of the commune prefered to cut and stack their fuel in winter, when the trees were sleeping, but he saw no harm in being open about these things. It was all regulated: they took nothing that the trees were not ready to discard. He stood beside his toolshed (which he had cultured himself, from living timber, a proud feat), scratching his chin and pondering. Those tourists now, where exactly had they got to?

There were Centres all over the world, where anyone who wished could experience, in forest, in meadows, desert, savannah or ocean, full communion with the woken world -or as much of that reality as they could stand. But foreign visitors who came to this oldest meeting place, the original Martigny Centre of the Forest of the Queen, often had very mistaken ideas. There was no raw primeval innocence here, for the forest was not old at all. It had died and been reborn as often as France herself, and shared the character of the human culture of the region. The woken world here (a misnomer, for it was the human mind that had been woken, almost by chance, by the seductive "invention", meant for entertainment, that had triggered a revolution) could be mischievous, bawdy, disruptive: a little dangerous to the unwary.

Tourists who arrived in the flesh irritated the Woodsman. Why could they not be content with the virtual access, which was excellent? But he thought fondly of the American couple, for the sake of that remarkable grey steed of theirs; for the sake of a past which he remembered with the nostalgia of a survivor. Nowadays, the living world could compel human beings to deal with its peoples fairly and decently. Agreements had been made, laws had been drawn up, which humanity must respect. My God, yes, the human race had learned a hard lesson, when the change first came. . . But even now, in the peace after the ages-long conflict, there was bitterness, and one had to take care. It must be a challenge to keep a machine like that, from the old days, happy!
And perilous.

His own car had been drowsing in a hazel thicket. He led it out and checked its skirts for burrs and prickles (its wheels were rarely deployed, they weren't very practical for this terrain) -as he studied the satellite views of the forest and its environs, which he habitually kept open at the back of his eyes when he was guarding these gates. The grey steed was nowhere to be seen. No mark of their passage anywhere. Perhaps they had given up trying to find the Centre, and left the area while his attention was elsewhere.

"After all," he murmured, as he gave the little white car a gentle touch on the wheel, to guide it across the water meadows -where it tended to shy at the rise of a heron, or the curiosity of the cattle. "It was a very old map."

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