The Forest Perilous
Terence Gallagher

Publication May 2021!
Binding

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236 pages

ISBN 978-1-60489-275-8, trade paper $18.95

 ISBN 978-1-60489-276-5, hardcover $28.95

 Also available in Kindle and e-book!

 

 

Excerpt from Book:

Chapter 1.  

Departures

 

            We begin again in the month of May, following my graduation from college. May, when as the book of the Knight Prisoner sayeth, every harte florysshyth and burgenyth and lovers callyth to their mynde old jantylnes and old servyse. For the first time in sixteen years the summer opened up without the inevitable and dreaded finale of school doors closing behind me again in the fall. For the first time in that long, long while, I didn't know where I'd be at the end of the summer.

            If I were wiser in the ways of the world, I might have been more worried than elated. I had not put myself in a strong position leaving college, as one of only two majors produced by the venerable Classics department of a "Little Ivy" college tucked snug among the hills of Massachusetts. Most of my classmates had jobs lined up and careers plotted out. Not me. A century before, my degree might have suited me for all kinds of occupations, from a man of letters to a foreign officer to an ad man, or at least not disqualified me out of hand. As things stand now, it was hard to see what the world would allow me to do, other than teach the useless subject I'd learned, and that would mean years more schooling.      

            Well, I'd done it to myself and there was no one else to blame. I wasn't worried; not about that. I had other things on my mind, other hopes to sustain me and other problems to solve. Though I had not heard a word or a hint from them since the day they left half a gold ring in my mailbox, it was my full determination and purpose to find Cornelia and the Dragons. I knew where I was going, though I didn't know how to get there.

            It was seven years since I had seen Cornelia.  She might have changed a great deal. I didn't think I had changed at all. I was the same child I'd always been. Everything I had done over the last seven years, every path followed and decision made, had been done shadowed by the knowledge that as soon as I was able I would take to the road and find the Dragons again. I had no reason to be certain that this was even possible, but I couldn't imagine what else I could do with myself. It was time to seek a roving life, along with the raggle-taggle gypsies.

It wouldn't be easy. My mother was so glad to have me back after four years at college, I knew she would be upset when I left home again so soon. They made it awfully pleasant for me that summer, nice easy days with ice cream and gin and tonics on the porch and reading in the yard. They put no pressure on me to run out and get a job immediately. I guess they figured it would take me a while to 'find my way.'

            My father made a few of his typical 'suggestions', which start out as suggestions and end up as warnings.

            "You might consider coming into publishing if you don't mind starting out with peanuts. And ending up with peanuts. I could talk to some of the people at my outfit to see if they have any openings or internships. I don't know. The business is changing fast. It's all technical now. They've farmed out the manuscript reading and editing to agents. See how long that lasts. Well, people are becoming less literate, aren't they? Ever heard of SEO, search engine optimization? When people write, they select words purely with the intention of attracting search engines. They're already using it for advertising and marketing. Soon they'll be using it for the books themselves, for fiction. Soon books will be written by computer programs. You think I'm kidding?"

            All of which was entertaining, but not likely to spur me to action.

            My lassitude scandalized my more hard-charging relatives when they came over to celebrate my graduation. Here I was, given the opportunity to attend this famous old New England school, and I seemed ready to fritter it all away. I suspect that secretly they resented what they believed to be my undeserved luck -- I'd won another scholarship -- in contrast to how hard their own kids had to work. I played up my lack of ambition and disaffection for my own amusement.

            "You've got to seize the day," said my cousin Cheryl. "This is the time for you to spread your wings. This time of your life will never come again. What do you want to do? Do you want to teach?"

            "Only with a gun to my head."

            "Teach in Colombia," said my passing father.

            "Why do you say that?" asked cousin Cheryl, still addressing me. "Your sister teaches. Doesn't she like it?"

            "Not from what I've heard."

            My sister was inside the house and couldn't be reached for comment.

            "You're only young once, and believe me it passes fast. This is the time you should be on fire, you should want to go out there and change the world."

            She turned to my grandfather, who was seated beside us on a lawn chair, passing in and out of awareness as he sat. I recognized a kindness, my cousin trying to include Grandpa in the conversation.

            "Uncle Raymond, don't you think young people should want to save the world?"

            It was an ill-chosen conversational gambit, coming as it did from a world of ideas that was totally closed to my grandfather.

            "Eh? Save the world? Who?"

            "Young people. The young. Didn't you want to save the world when you were young?

            "Me? No." My grandfather laughed gently. "No."

            Her daughter chimed in, fresh off a miniseries about World War II and the Greatest Generation, I'd guess.

            "But Uncle Raymond when you went off to fight the Nazis, didn't you want to save the world?"

            My grandfather laughed again, amazed.

            "No. Save the world? No. I just wanted to go home in one piece."

            Later, and for a long time, he kept returning to this and shaking his head.

            "What was that? Change the world? Save the world?"

            "A little of this, a little of that."

            "Who wants to save the world? These people I see, in the street and on television, do they think they're going to save the world? Why? How?"

            At this stage of life, he had taken to repeating himself.  I could only keep telling him I didn't know.

2.

            I was very lucky in that I had no student debt. My scholarship took care of most of my expenses, and my parents' generosity, supplemented by my job washing dishes in the cafeteria, took care of the rest. Also, aside from books, I had almost no expenses at college. I wore clothes until they wore out. When I wanted entertainment I went for a walk in the hills. I had no car, so I made no trips and bought no gas. Practically speaking, I graduated at square one, with no debts but with a degree that would earn me no money. But four years older. A perfect James Ward performance, one might say.

            Now that I was free to pursue my quest, the lack of an automobile was going to pose a problem. As a matter of fact, I did have a car promised to me whenever I was ready, Troll's old Mustang, but I didn't have a license. I hadn't learned to drive. Not really surprising, considering I spent the bulk of every year up at school. I figured that even if I managed to get my license over the summer, I'd forget how to drive over the other three seasons.

            Troll's Mustang. He never did get to drive it much. He'd come home and drive it between deployments. He used to drive over to my house sometimes and we'd play ping pong again. He seemed more or less the same, only maybe a little preoccupied. I never asked him about overseas and he never told me much. Why would he? What would I understand? Our life had always been a matter of vacations and visits, slow-maturing jokes as we lay on the cool lakeside grass and listened to the evening crickets. There was too wide a gap to bridge between that old easy life and the hard rock and hot sands of his new calling. He'd just tell the occasional funny story, mostly about basic training -- an inexhaustible source -- and about life with his buddies back on the base.

            Now that I think about it, however hopeful its beginning May ended on a sour note that year. Aunt Joanna had asked us to accompany her to a Memorial Weekend ceremony out on the Island. I had been to such ceremonies before and I did not like them. Bereaved family members, usually a mother and sister or a wife and daughter, stood at the podium reading out the names of the slain. So Aunt Joanna and Uncle Joe were going to stand there and say "Eugene Mazza" and somehow that was supposed to make everything better. And all the while there were the guys on motorcycles with beards and bellies and many little medals, veterans I can only say swaggering around because they had made it and Troll hadn't.  It was an irrational perception on my part, I suppose; almost everyone there had lost someone. But it was the way I felt. And when I say felt, I mean really felt, in my gut, like a twisting invasive fist in my stomach.

            But as my mother said, "It helps your Aunt Joanne," and that was enough.

            When the day came, it was as I had feared. The reading of the names, the only feeble ceremony our society seems able to agree on, sounding querulous, like a series of complaints. Then the speeches, how they had died defending our freedoms. Troll had been killed on his third deployment, while on patrol in a town he had also patrolled on his first deployment. I don't know what he was defending at that point, but I'm sure he did it well. Then came the defiant ones, who stood at the podium and addressed the terrorists, how our resolve would not be broken, how we would hunt them down, how they didn't understand this country, how we would never surrender. Safe in the cocoon of a Long Island town on a sleepy long weekend and not a terrorist within six thousand miles, to the sound of applause and whooping. It embarrassed me. It bothered me too because it seemed to validate Troll's death, to declare it necessary and good, and I didn't think it was either. My being there implied that I was one of them, that I thought as they did.

            My mother was right, though. Our presence did help my Aunt Joanne, and my Uncle Joe too. Even more they were helped not so much by the ceremonies, but by standing together with the other bereaved, talking or not talking. Troll was their only child and they had long lives of grief stretching before them. They needed this, and my reservations were a small thing in comparison.

            As it turned out, my attendance at the ceremony even helped me, as I saw one thing there, wholly unexpected, that I wouldn't have missed for the world. A Waffenghoul t-shirt, one of the last of its kind. Waffenghoul was Troll's band, a crazy affair he'd started even before he entered the Marine Corps, that existed on and off on three continents, through peace and war. The kind of music they played depended to a great extent on what instruments they happened to have with them. When pressed, Troll described it as "death folk." They played everything from German folk songs to a heavy metal version of the Baywatch theme. As a matter of fact, the back of the Waffenghoul t-shirt proclaimed "The legendary Edge of Surrender tour" with a list of nondescript venues which included at least one café that had been blown apart a few years back and still lacked a roof.

            The band and that t-shirt in particular caused Troll a lot of trouble. The band's logo was printed in exaggerated heavy black fraktur script across a red background and the jagged ff of the Waffen, with the light cross bars of the f, looked uncomfortably like the SS logo from the bad old days. The American armed forces frown on any display of the paraphernalia of Nazism and Troll was called on the carpet and asked about it more than once. The thing is, he couldn't explain the name without violating the band's sacred code. His protestations of innocence fell on skeptical ears.

            He wouldn't even tell me what Waffenghoul meant, just gave me a couple of hints.

            "You took German in school, right?"

            "Right."

            "The W is pronounced in the German way, like a V."

            "OK."

            "You know I'm half Italian, right?"

            "Yes."

            "That's all the hints I'm going to give you. Know or not know. It's up to you."

            Eventually I figured it out.

            The t-shirt may even have had a hand in his death. Troll believed that his smart-assery had retarded his progress in the Corps and held him back at least one grade. If he had been promoted as he otherwise deserved, maybe he would not have been performing that particular duty on that particular patrol. Death was all over the place over there, though. Maybe they would have found some other way to kill him.

            Regardless, I was happy to see the old logo, and walked up behind the wearer.

            "Waffenghoul!" I said.

            He turned, surprised.

            We shook hands.

            "Were you in the band?" I asked.

            "I played guitar and 'auxiliary instruments.'" He cocked his head. "I don't remember…"

            "I'm Troll's cousin."

            "Oh, right, you must be Ward."

            We talked easily. I could imagine him as one of Troll's buddies. I sensed in him some of the same skepticism that I felt about the memorial ceremony, overlaid with other emotions that I couldn't experience.

            After a while, he said, "Are Troll's parents here?"

            "They're right over there. I'll introduce you."

            Their meeting was a small joy to help heal a great sorrow. They all knew what to say, unrehearsed and genuine, but with a certain strange elegance. It was knowledge gained at great cost.

            That's how May ended for me. I was reminded once more of the affair a couple of weeks later when Aunt Joanne mailed us a story from the local paper, a story that featured a photo of a Korean War veteran, some guy who hadn't been killed, with that faraway look in his eyes that they always wear for the camera, in an old uniform with many medals on his chest. That annoyed me all over again, but only for a little while.

3.

            Then June came and with it the first letter, and my adventures began in earnest.    

            I had stopped by the Big House already, once or twice. It looked like it was going through one of its fallow periods. No answer when I knocked, and the lawn cut by an unseen hand once a month. I tried some desultory research on the Internet, but I couldn't think of what to search on. The killing in the field had never been solved. I searched on Travelers (and Travellers and Tinkers and Gypsies), killings with swords, manuscript discoveries. I searched on names. Nothing.

            I was just beginning to research property deeds in New York -- maybe I could get a line on the householder -- when the Dragons, again, anticipated me.

            It was a Saturday morning and I was puttering about in my bare feet with a big mug of coffee in my hand. A shadow passed across the windows on either side of the door. Something bigger than a squirrel was on our front stoop.

            I pushed out onto the landing and heard small shoes slapping against tar. When I walked down the stairs I saw a little girl with long wavy hair running away down the driveway toward a waiting car. She looked fearfully over her shoulder; she was obviously performing a spy operation. She saw she had been caught and dove into the back seat.

             I raised my coffee cup to her. Spy or not, she was a little girl. She waved back and smiled. The car drove away.

            I walked up the stairs and reached into our brass mailbox. There was a letter waiting for me, just as I suspected and dearly hoped. To my surprise, it was not from Cornelia but from Miss Widdershins.

 

Four before Kalends of June

            Dear James:

            They tell me you have graduated from university. Congratulations.

            As you know we left you very abruptly and without a proper farewell. That has weighed on me. We would like to offer you our hospitality now. We are in our Northeast Summer quarters and will be for the remainder of the summer and probably until winter falls. They are in Pennsylvania, not so very far away from you. Let me know if you would be interested in a visit, short or long as you please, at a time of your choosing. We can map you a route or arrange transport.

            Cornelia and some Cats are encamped nearby, so it would be a happy reunion.

            We can communicate in the usual way.

            Tell me, how is your grandfather? A fine old gentleman.

            Vivien Widdershins

 

             I drafted three responses, each shorter than the last. I wound up writing a short note to the effect that I would be happy to come out and visit the Dragons and Cornelia, that I supposed it would probably be in July or August, but that, alas, I did not drive. I folded the note into an envelope addressed to Miss Widdershins and popped it into the box. Now the focus shifted to dealing with my parents.



 
 
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