Here, as promised, is the third and final part of An Odd Missive. Given how the world is now, I know finding a secret neighborhood with an absurdist and whimsical bent is very appealing. Full disclosure, it’s still a dangerous place, but in a mythic way. Is that any better? It’s more entertaining. I am quite proud of the whole thing, but then again, I am biased.
He was in a forest. There were trees — thick, heavy trees, which seemed misshapen somehow, not that Paul was an expert, but there was something wrong about them. All of the smells and noises he noticed before were now intensified.
Looking back the way he came, he saw Parsnip and Looseleaf peering downwards through a doorway that was set upright into a large tree.
“Three things,” began Parsnip, “One, never leave the path. That’ll be the end of you.”
“Quite right,” added Looseleaf. “Two, don’t eat or drink anything, or you’ll never leave.”
“Leave where?” asked Paul, who felt a panic attack approaching.
Ignoring his question, Parsnip said, “And when you’re dealing with the Old Lady, always be polite but do not volunteer any information.”
“Is that three or four,” asked Looseleaf of his partner.
“The last bit is linked, so I think of it as the third thing,” protested Parsnip.
Looseleaf considered that for a moment and said, “Seems fair and just.”
“As I endeavor to do in all things,” replied Parsnip.
Paul felt well enough to stand, which he did, and moved towards the door, which was starting to swing shut.
“Wait!” cried Paul, lunging towards the closing door.
“One last thing, Julia has the key!” said either Parsnip or Looseleaf, it was impossible to tell.
Paul tried to open the door but it was locked and immovable. He tried banging on it, but all that accomplished was to make his hand sore. Not knowing where he was or what was going on, he did what most people do in such a situation, he took out his smart phone. Just map where he was and he could find his way to a subway; this must be a park. There was of course no signal. Paul sighed and slipped the phone back into his pocket. He felt the card that Ms. Karkowski had handed him this morning.
It finally occurred to him that, during his brief meeting with his boss that morning, there was no humanly way she could have written all that he had read so far on this card. And the fact that it always had some up-to-the-minute, context-aware information on it — and that it still seemed to otherwise be plain old ink on paper — was proof that something was very, very wrong. It was not, in fact, Internet-enabled “e-paper”. Removing it from his pocket, he read it once more: “Just do what they told you and everything will be fine.”
Paul did not think that outcome was possible, but with apparently no other choice he walked into the woods, keeping on the path, as he was told.
As he walked along the path, which was well-worn and lined with stones, Paul had the unpleasant feeling that he was being watched. This intensified until he wheeled around and saw a squirrel behind him, holding an acorn with both hands. With eyes like liquid night, the squirrel held his gaze. It felt like one of those moments in an action movie, just before a gunfight broke out, except that Paul didn’t have a gun and all the squirrel had was an acorn. Paul turned slowly back around and the squirrel did the same, mirroring Paul.
Paul quickly turned back again, but the squirrel was gone, off to bury its acorn, if he knew anything about squirrels (which he did not; few really do). He picked up the pace and passed a number of odd things, such as a small waterfall that fed a little pond, whose surface was undisturbed and shone like burnished silver. In the pond, he could see the reflection of the surrounding trees and what looked like a tall tower, although the tower otherwise wasn’t there.
He saw a group of standing stones, through which a wind blew and the faintest of music could be heard. It was tempting to get closer — he knew that if he stood in the middle of them he could hear the song fully — but the words of Looseleaf or perhaps Parsnip echoed in his mind, “Never Leave The Path Or That Will Be The End Of You”. So he put his fingers in his ears and hummed tunelessly, which incidentally was the only way he knew how.
Paul passed a rabbit on the side of the path, looking at him from a patch of tall grass. Unlike the squirrel, which had a very suspicious demeanor, this rabbit seemed, well there was no other word for it, amused. It cocked its head and grinned. Then it chuckled. Rabbits can’t grin or laugh, thought Paul, but there it was, enjoying the sight of Paul, for reasons of its own. With one final guffaw (guffaw?), it disappeared into the grass. At least it didn’t have a pocket watch, but that’s something he shouldn’t have to think about wildlife. Ever.
Winding downwards, the path led into a clearing where two people sat around a wooden table on which sat a rustic teapot and cups. The first person was an old woman, dressed like a peasant from somewhere in Eastern European, complete with babushka. All the colors were yellows and reds. She was pouring tea into three cups.
The second was a beautiful young woman dressed like a peasant as well, but with a wholly different effect. She had hair the color of honey, with subtle highlights of gold. Her eyes were gray, which recalled clouds seen just as you arrive home ahead of the storm, safe and dry. Her nose was a little crooked, which only enhanced her unique appearance. As for the rest of her, Paul had a difficult time thinking of a polite way to describe her, other than “Wow”.
“Julia?” he asked, his mouth gone dry.
“It seems your hero has arrived, my dear,” said the old woman.
Julia looked him up and down and sighed. “Parsnip and Looseleaf, why do I bother.”
“Now, now, sweetie, he may have hidden talents,” said the old woman with a sly smile. “Please, hero, have a seat.”
Paul sat down.
“I’m not a hero,” he said.
Julia shot him a look that made it clear she agreed with that assessment.
“Now that remains to be seen,” the old woman said, “Let us now introduce ourselves. You may call me Gran.”
I’m P-…” Paul suddenly remembered the advice to not offer any information. “I’m the one they… sent.”
“That’s a rather long name,” replied Gran. “Do you mind if I call you Hero?”
“Uh… sure,” Paul said. He looked at Julia with a smile and shrugged. She stared at him as if he were an idiot. Lots of women had looked at him that way, and over time he had accepted it as an unhappy fact. But he wanted to prove Julia wrong.
“So, you are here for this fair maiden?” asked Gran.
“I’m not a maiden,” said Julia, with vehemence.
Gran tutted, “Not a thing, in my day, that a young lady might say so willfully or proudly.”
“Not ‘your day’, is it?” countered Julia.
“That remains to be seen, doesn’t it?” replied Gran.
With that, both women looked at Paul. It was clear they were waiting for him to say something, but he had no idea what. Julia shook her head and Gran smiled.
“What?” said Paul. He nervously fingered the card, looked down at it, and it read “Say why you’re here”.
“Oh, right, I’m here to bring Julia back,” Paul declared.
Julia gave him a look that said “Finally”.
“Excellent!” said Gran.
“Oh, that was easier than I thought,” said Paul.
“Would you like a cookie? I baked them myself,” said Gran, holding out a plateful.
Paul was suddenly ravenous. He’d not eaten since a bagel on the way to work that morning, and those cookies looked amazing. He took one and popped it in his mouth.
“You are an idiot,” said Julia. This was the first time she had spoken to him directly.
The little voices of Parsnip and Looseleaf that had been chiming in and keeping him from harm had gone silent. Or he had just forgotten. Either way, Paul had the sense of encroaching doom.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” he asked around the chunks of cookie in his mouth.
“I couldn’t!” Julia said.
“Why?” he persisted.
“Don’t eat or drink anything! How hard is that to remember?” Julia yelled at him.
“My two children, I have so many things for you to do for me,” Gran said, her smile widening to show many tiny, sharp teeth. It reminded Paul of a nature show he’d seen about weird fish that lived in the deepest part of the ocean.
“It was just a cookie,” he said. “Why can’t we just leave?”
“By all means,” said Gran, as she gestured to the path behind him.
Paul began to get up but found he was stuck to the chair.
“We are bound by her will,” said Julia.
“Indeed you are,” Gran said.
“All you had to do was not eat that damned cookie,” Julia said.
“And why can’t you leave?” Paul asked.
“It’s a long story,” Julia replied, looking away.
“Did you eat a cookie too?” he asked.
Julia’s cheeks flushed — adorably, he thought — and she said, “It doesn’t matter.”
“Why?” Paul asked.
“Because shut up!” she said.
There was a sound, like nuts and bolts poured over aluminum foil, and they both looked at Gran, who appeared to be laughing. Her shoulders shook with each exhalation.
“This is going to be, oh, so merry,” Gran said, as she wiped a tear from her eye.
“This really is unfair,” said Paul loudly.
Julia rolled her eyes, but Gran said, “No, you are correct, Hero. It is unfair; you came into this with a pure heart.”
Gran looked right at Julia and said, “Truly pure.”
“What do you–“ asked Paul, but was cut off by Gran.
“I’ll make this wager: We will each make a portrait of fair Julia here, and the most accurate will be able to do what they will.”
“Portrait?” asked Paul.
But Gran had already produced an easel with a canvas, a pallet with paints, bushes, and an hourglass.
“When the sand runs out, then we will judge,” said Gran, who turned the hourglass over.
“What am I supposed to use?” asked Paul, who had not brought art supplies with him that morning.
“Whatever you like, dear, whatever you like,” said Gran, who was already painting away.
The hourglass was more likely a minute glass, with the rate that the sand was falling. Paul frantically went through his pockets; he had a pen, excellent! But the only paper he had — other than the notecard his boss had given him, and he probably needed that — was a ripped receipt for the Thai takeout he had the week before. The sand was running faster and faster, as he reached into his last pocket and felt a smooth, cool shape.
With a confidence he rarely felt, Paul pulled out his smart phone and snapped a picture.
“Done,” he said, as the last grain of sand fell.
“Pardon?” said Gran.
“Here, take a look,” he said, and showed the old woman the picture he took. It was entirely accurate — even more so than the one Gran had done, though her work was eerily accurate, but still not as complete as a digital photo.
He showed it to Julia, who favored him with a smile. “Good work, hero,” she said. Not a sonnet, but it did make Paul feel as if he deserved the title.
Gran’s eyes narrowed, and she looked as if she were ready to inflict grave damage. Instead, she pulled out two twigs from somewhere and broke them. With that, Paul knew he could get up and walk away.
He stood, offering a hand to Julia, which she took (yeah!), and they walked towards the path.
“I misjudged you,” said Gran, “I thought you a stupid oaf. I will not make that mistake again. Go, for now.”
Paul did not care for the “for now” part of that, nor for the “stupid oaf” comment, but he had fixed this and was enjoying the moment. In fact, as they proceeded back to the doorway, the Rabbit winked at him, and the squirrel dropped an acorn into his pocket. He felt, and quite rightly, that this was a sort of praise.
As they walked, Paul who still felt pretty good about the way things turned out, turned to Julia and asked, “What was that all about?”
“It’s kind of a long story,” she replied, avoiding his eyes.
“But who-“ he began.
She stopped and looked him straight in the eyes, “Listen, do you have relatives that you might not talk to if you weren’t related?”
Thinking of his cousin who had joined the Salvation Army to meet girls and subsequently deserted when it was apparent that while women loved a man in uniform, it didn’t mean they loved every man in uniform, Paul said, “Uh… sure.”
“That’s the short version,” she said.
Paul felt that pursuing this line of questioning would ruin the moment, so he just enjoyed the companionable silence.
Once they arrived at the door, Paul said, “They said you had the key.”
“What key?” she said, distractedly.
Paul felt a bubble of panic rising in him. While he enjoyed strolling through a forest with a beautiful woman, he was quite certain that if he was stuck here, he would die pretty quickly.
“Oh, you mean this key?” Julia asked, as she produced a brass key from a hidden pocket.
“I hope so,” he replied.
She smiled and turned the key in the lock, and the door swung inward to show the ceiling of Parsnip and Looseleaf’s apartment. She took his hand and together they stepped forward and onto the table. Paul again felt vertigo, but much less this time. Parsnip and Looseleaf stood on either side of the table and said in unison, “Welcome back!”
There was a feast in the apartment, which seemed very appropriate, with excellent food and beer. And there were stories that were at once funny, exciting, sad, poignant, informative, and scary (but only the one about the Coppermen). Afterwards, he could not recall even a word, with one exception. He had said, perhaps aided by the exceptional beer, that he wished he could stay there. Soon after that, Paul got up to stagger home and Julia kissed his forehead, which was the last thing he remembered clearly.
* * *
Paul woke up in his own bed. He couldn’t recall how he got there, and everything that had happened seemed like a dream — except, unlike most dreams, he could recall everything with complete clarity, except for those stories.
He looked at his clock, 7:30am. He needed to rush to get to work on time, so he jumped in the shower, grabbed an energy bar, and walked out of his apartment door into the front yard. Front yard? He looked around. He was standing in front of a door with a brass A on it, which was next to a smaller door. He looked back through the doorway — that was his apartment, but now it was next-door to Parsnip and Looseleaf’s apartment.
Just then, Looseleaf, in a tatty brown robe, opened his door.
“Good morning! Ready for work, I see,” he said cheerily.
“What’s going on?” asked Paul, who was not sure he wanted to know.
Parsnip, sporting a spotless green robe, stuck his head out and said, “Excellent! Early for work. I like the cut of your jib!”
“What is going on?” Paul repeated.
“You work for us now,” said Parsnip.
“No, I don’t,” said Paul uneasily.
“Indeed you do, young sir!” chimed in Looseleaf.
“’Twas your request!” added Parsnip.
Looseleaf produced a folded-up piece of heavy paper. It was long and contained many heretofores and in-the-event-ofs, but at the bottom was Paul’s signature, countersigned by Parsnip and Looseleaf and witnessed by Julia, and apparently made official with a wax seal. Quite official, in an unfair sort of way.
“But my apartment…?” Paul asked.
“All part of your signing bonus. Traveling expenses taken care of,” said Parsnip.
“No worries, old boy!” added Looseleaf, with a hearty slap on the arm.
Paul took a moment. This was crazy, this sort of thing didn’t happen. He had a life, and friends. He couldn’t just pull up and leave. He turned to say just that, when Julia walked up and opened the front gate. She was dressed in an aviatrix jacket, cream-colored silk blouse, tight brown pants, and high boots with buckles up the side.
“You’ve joined the team, have you?” she asked.
“Yes,” Paul said, and he meant it.
“Welcome to The Borough,” she replied with a smile.