In a Dark Wood

Here begins the book of the nature of beasts. Of lions, panthers and tigers, wolves and foxes, dogs and apes -- The Aberdeen Bestiary

She tries to ask him.

"When you say 'beast'..."

But her father just shakes his head, mumbling, and hurries out of the room. Some things simply can't be described -- they're too... well, they're just... you know. Anyway, he doesn't want to frighten her unnecessarily. It might all come to nothing, you never can tell.

So, on the way to the palace on the back of the borrowed horse, her arms wrapped tight around her father's waist, she makes a list in her head of beastly things. It's best to be prepared.

1. Fur. An obvious one, with her face buried in her father's new fur-trimmed cloak. Fur or hair? She's not sure which would be more horrible. Hair seems more human, but fur is softer. It belongs to the harmless sorts of things you stroke. Cats. Hamsters.

2. Horns. Not a pleasant thought. Billy goats. Bulls. Things with bad tempers and mad eyes.

3. Hooves. That just makes her want to laugh.

4. A tail. Actually, she doesn't want to think about tails, she decides. They make her feel uncomfortable. She will move on.

5. Wings. Might be all right. She wonders if they will come complete with feathers, or whether they will be smooth skin wings. What about a bat's wing, with that soft, thin membrane stretched out tight between the spines like the panels of an umbrella? She touched a bat once. Such a small and delicate thing. You don't really want one flying round your head, though. Getting in your hair.

6. Scales. Like a fish. Will she have to live underwater? No, that's ridiculous. Other things have scales, though, don't they? Lizards and things. Snakes. Things that scamper or slither. Would they be cold or warm to the touch? Wet or dry?

Her father calls back over his shoulder: "Are you all right, my dear?" His words are whipped away on the wind.

"Is this horse actually flying?"

He forces a laugh. "I think it's just that it's so very fast, you know..."

"I suppose so."

Staring at the back of her father's head, she imagines she can see all the way through it; through his thinning hair, through skin and bone. Through the soft tissues, and into his thoughts, and out again. All the way to the lines slowly engraving themselves on his face.

They are entering the forest. She holds on tighter, and wonders about spines and snouts and claws.


After her father has gone, she takes herself off to bed, because she doesn't really know what else to do. A palace seems too big for someone on their own, even when they aren't really on their own at all. And she knows she isn't. Invisible, silent things are everywhere. The sorts of things that hide in the dark. And somewhere, lurking... him. It. The Beast.

Methodically, she undresses, unbuttons, unhooks. She hangs her clothes very neatly over the back of a chair. For some reason, they (whoever they are) have put far too many mirrors in this room. They seem to be everywhere, and they catch her off-guard. She finds herself almost scuttling to the bed, like someone who's afraid of her own reflection.

The sheets, she notes, are of a very good quality. Her sisters would be impressed.

In the dark, the room seems too big, or perhaps too small. It appears to expand and contract. She doesn't know where anything is, and there are strange reflections and dark shapes that could be anything. She folds herself up tight and small in the middle of the bed and shuts her eyes. She holds onto herself in case she should fall.

Something wakes her up in the middle of the night. A sort of bellowing, she thinks foggily. Something in pain or anger. Anguish. A frightening sort of word like that. But perhaps it was only a dream.

When she wakes again the room is filled with sunlight. She sees now that the walls are painted white, with a faded pattern of green vines running up to the ceiling, curling around the windows and losing themselves behind the heavy wardrobe. The furniture itself is intricately carved; long, leafy branches weave together, threading themselves into fantastical patterns. A sinuous creeper spirals around the bedpost; she follows it with her finger but it doubles back on itself, forming a complicated knot of tendrils, and she loses the thread.

A movement in the corner of the room catches her eye and she starts, but it's only her reflection again. Her own face, become somehow unfamiliar, peers back at her.

There is a soft knock at the door. She lies very still, waiting.

"Hello? Just wanted to make sure you're all right."

It is him, of course. The voice sounds strangely muffled, as though the person is speaking through a scarf, or into a handkerchief. A low, slightly hoarse voice. It is difficult to judge whether or not it sounds inhuman. Not... terrible, really, and certainly nothing like any animal she has heard. More like someone with a cold. She does not reply.

"Got everything you need?"

She hesitates, and then she says, "Yes."

"Good... Well, I'll -- I'll see you a bit later, I expect."

She listens carefully for the receding footsteps. Will she hear the clicking of claws? Will he shuffle or slither or pad? Perhaps, after all, there will be hooves? But she hears nothing at all. After a while, she thinks perhaps she'll get up.


The palace seems to move itself around, which is clever of it, she can't deny. She feels as though it's herding her, sheepdog-like, first in one direction, then another. She wanders the morning away, through vast high-ceilinged halls with heavy tapestries hung on their stone walls; through genteel, chintz-patterned sitting rooms and perfumed boudoirs, all velvet and silk. Behind a fringed curtain, she comes upon a long corridor carpeted with dusky pink rose petals. She hardly likes to walk on them and finds them later, stuck to her shoes and coming off on the carpets. In an echoing, vaulted room like the inside of a church, a whole tree-trunk is burning on the hearth. The scent it gives off is heavy and slightly sweet. She looks up and sees that the high ceiling is bossed with strange carved forms -- things with legs and wings, coiled tightly into circles.

At one point, she opens a door off a passageway and finds herself in a tiny cupboard, looking into a small round mirror. She steps back, a hand to her chest -- the palace has fooled her again. The mirror's frame is shaped like the fine-boned head of a wolfhound, its mouth stretched wide open to hold the glass. Her pale reflected face floats in the darkness like the moon in water.

She finds a room in which a plain deal table has been set for tea. There is a kettle whistling on the hob and on the table a heavy teapot in a bright knitted cosy. Next to it, hot buttered toast on a plate. The curtains at the window are yellow, with a printed pattern of green leaves and lizards.

There is nobody to ask, so she sits down and pours herself a cup of tea. It is very quiet.

Only once during that first day, under an arched stone doorway at the other end of a corridor, does she see another living creature. It is an indistinct form, clothed in shadows. She stands very still. It must have seen her. It seems to raise an arm, or at any rate a limb (could it be a tentacle? Does she really think that?) in greeting. Then it turns and is gone.


They meet, of course, eventually. It is hard to avoid someone when they own a magical palace that rearranges itself on a whim.

It happens in the gardens. She has found herself here (although she can't quite remember how) walking along a gravel path. On either side of her are trees clipped into the shapes of creatures: a hare with its head turned, a peacock, a stag. The warm scent of oranges hangs in the still air; even out here there is a sort of blanketing hush, as though everything were half-asleep. Behind her the path winds, forks, joins other paths and then diverges from them again, all the way back to the palace. Everything here, she thinks, ties itself in knots.

When she turns the corner he is there, sitting on a bench, writing in a small black notebook. He looks up. She swallows. He is not quite like any of the things she imagined. She cannot absolutely say that he is finned, or winged, or hoofed. And yet, she cannot absolutely say that he isn't. There is something about him of the dank marsh, or of the earth, or the creeping undergrowth. Of wild and lonely places coming alive at night, when there is nobody around to see.

"Hello," he says.

He seems to have brought the shadows out with him into the sunlight. Despite the warmth, he has wrapped himself in a wide scarf, a heavy, dark coat or cloak (it's hard to tell which), and a large, broad-brimmed hat. She tries not to look at him too closely. She decides that she will try not to look at him at all.

"How are you getting on?" he asks. He still sounds muffled, but she doesn't look to see whether it's because he is, indeed, speaking through his scarf, or if it's something to do with the shape of his mouth.

"Yes," she says, stiffly. "Very well, thank you."

"Good, good. As I say, if you need anything..." He trails off.

She can't think of anything else to say. It's really very awkward, the whole thing.

"Hear that?" he asks suddenly.


"That bird singing. Do you know what it is?"

"I think it's a blackbird."

"Ah..." He is silent for a moment. "That's good to know, thank you. We don't really get much birdsong out here any more. Shame, really."

"Don't you?" She's intrigued, despite herself. "Why is that?"

He shrugs, or something like it. "Oh, it's all to do with, you know, the thing."

"What thing?"

"Doesn't matter." He pauses and then says, "Join me for dinner?"

She'd rather go back to her room, really. This morning there was a tray waiting with her breakfast on it. But it doesn't seem polite.

She follows him back through the maze of paths and pretends not to notice as he avoids the bright open spaces, walking instead in the shade provided by the trees and hedges. An apple tree drops its blossom on him as he brushes past, as white as snow on his dark coat.


She was afraid of having to watch him eat, but in the event there is nothing to see, or to try not to see. He makes a pretence of picking at what is on his plate, but every time she looks up, he is watching her from underneath the hat he apparently never removes. There is the bright glimpse of an eye, swiftly averted. Perhaps he just isn't hungry. He looks hungry, she thinks.

"How's your meal?" he says. "Hope it's all right for you."

"Oh, yes. Yes, it's very nice, thank you. There's, er, a lot of it, isn't there?"

"Well, I wasn't sure what sort of thing you might like, so I just ordered everything." He gestures at the vast and bewildering array of dishes. "Don't worry, I'm not going to make you eat it all."

She smiles, despite herself. She can feel the wine she's drunk spreading through her, soft and warm.


The days dissolve into one another like ink bleeding into water. She wakes in the mornings, sometimes with the sunlight warm on her face, sometimes earlier in the semi-dark. On those days, she stands at the window and watches the sun rise over the black shapes of trees, painting the clouds with pink and orange. She has tried to imagine leaving the palace, striking off on her own, walking into the woods. But, always, her mind slides around and away from the idea, until eventually it evaporates into the air with her dreams.

When she finds the library, she thinks she could probably live there forever and be reasonably happy. It almost looks as though someone might have tried -- there are spaces that look like nests, and others like cabins; structures sturdy or precarious, walls and beds and roofs made entirely out of books. She runs her fingers along their spines: Aesop, she reads, Ambrose. Andrewe. Anonymous. Andrewe's book is all fish. Nereydes are monsters of the sea, it says, all rough of body, and when any of them die, then the others weep.

On another shelf, she finds a story about an enchanted land covered in snow, and when she has finished reading it there is another, and another, and another. She reads for hours (or days, it could be) hunching and shifting now and again to ease the aches in her bones. The leather of her chair is old, warm and cracked; the smell of it reminds her of her father's study. The library provides for its guests, she discovers. When she happens to look up, she finds a plate of sandwiches waiting for her on a shelf, or a cup of tea balanced on a pile of dictionaries, the steam rising like a quiet and friendly ghost.

"Getting on all right?" he always asks her when they meet for dinner. She never knows quite how she should reply.

"I don't know," she says one evening. Tonight, the palace has served pastries baked in the shapes of moles, weasels, cats and dragons. "I'm not sure... I wonder, is there something I ought to be doing?"

"You should do whatever you want," he says. "Or, at least, that's what I'd do. I think."

"You don't sound very sure."

"It's difficult to be sure of anything much, these days. Don't you find that?"

She smiles. The conversation often goes on like this, drifting aimlessly from shore to shore. Nothing is ever defined or certain. Their talk is fluid, soft and easy as the wine they drink. It surprised her at first, the easiness of it all.

"I think," she says, "that your house is interesting. And frightening, sometimes. And I think it might be trying to tell me something."

"What makes you say that?"

The wallpaper in this room is patterned with red leaves. Out of the corner of her eye, she seems to see the movement of tiny creatures, little birds hidden in the branches. She thinks she hears something rustling.

"I think," she says, "that it's alive."


He finds her one afternoon, stretched out on the floor in the library, eating biscuits and reading an interesting book called On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

"Hello," he says, poking his head around the door. "Not interrupting, am I?"

"Yes, but it's all right." She sits up and holds out the plate to him. "Do you want a biscuit?"

"No, thank you."

He sits down quite near her. She looks at him more now, or tries to. But although she's careful not to avoid him, still, she finds him difficult to really see. It's as though he's shifting and changing all the time. He's always in shadow.

Monstrous. She looked the word up in the dictionary. In several. She tries to remind herself that this is the word that must apply to him. Because he is a monster. He is the Beast.

"What are you reading?" he asks. She hands him the book and he takes it from her, careful to keep her place.

"Ah..." he says. "This hasn't been written yet. At least, I don't think it has. It's so hard to remember, sometimes. One loses track." He stands holding the volume for a while, and then shakes his head and hands it back to her.

"At any rate," he says, "it's a first edition."

She doesn't know what to say to that.

"I wondered," he says, "whether you'd like to help me with a project?"

She glances a little regretfully at her book, considering. Time runs oddly here. One really may as well be doing one thing as another. "Yes," she says. "Of course."

"Good." He smiles, perhaps. It's difficult to tell.


"Would you mind passing me that ring-tailed lemur?"

They are sitting cross-legged on the carpet, in a room with high ceilings and large windows. The walls are painted duck-egg blue, and there is a stillness, a certain quality to the light that reminds her of long Sunday afternoons in late winter, when her mother was still alive. A fire burns steadily in the hearth.

In front of her on the floor there is a vast expanse of white paper, and piles and piles of pictures. Strange pictures: some printed, some drawn in pencil or chalk, some coloured and some plain. Some are sad, others make her want to laugh. She doesn't know where they all could have come from. He, on the other side of this paper ocean, sits hunched, all but hidden by his clothes and by the brim of his hat. She passes him the picture he asked for and he nods and thanks her.

She doesn't know why they are doing any of this, but she doesn't ask. She finishes cutting out her green parrot with a pair of precise, curved scissors, and paints the back of it with glue. She holds it, hovering, over the paper.

"Does it matter where I put it?"

"I shouldn't think so. But who can tell?"

She glues it next to a pen-and-ink drawing of a rabbit with a waistcoat and a pocket-watch. The rabbit is three times the size of the parrot. She frowns.

"You don't think it looks a bit silly?"

A rustling of paper, and he is at her shoulder. She is not sure, but that might be the ghost of his breath on her neck. Is he laughing at her?

"Very silly," he says. "Very silly indeed. Well done."

She sighs. "Well, I suppose it could always fly away. The parrot, I mean, not the rabbit."

But he shakes his head. "No, the parrot couldn't either. Not that one. It's flightless, that sort of parrot. It wanders around at night, all across the forest floor." He's going away now, back to the other side of the room, and she seems to feel his absence as a void or gap -- a sort of chilly emptiness in the air. "I like to think of it sometimes," he says, "just roaming around in the dark."

"Have you ever seen one?" she asks. Where do you go?, she wants to say. What do you do? And what are you? But she doesn't. They are talking about parrots.

He stands still for a moment, thinking. "I don't think I have," he says. "But then, would I know?"

The heavy glass-domed clock on the mantelpiece ticks gently into the hush. She hasn't noticed it until now.


She dreams about home. Her sisters are there, whispering together and laughing. They are older than her, and so she slips through the cracks, plays on her own. She makes up games with words and numbers. They pat her head and call her Beauty. It's not her real name, but nobody ever remembers that.

The day her mother dies, it's like the house is full of smoke. The air hurts her lungs. She runs out of the back door and over the heathland, and she steps in a stream and her best boots fill up with water. She is afraid to tell her father, but after all, nobody notices about the boots that day, or the next, or the next. She puts them in front of the nursery fire to dry them out, but the soft leather is warped and stained, and they are never quite the same again.

In her bedroom in the palace, a branch wakes her, tapping and tapping against the window. Her left arm has slipped out from under the bedclothes and grown cold. She warms her hand against the soft skin on the inside of her thigh.


He comes to the library sometimes and reads with her, choosing a book at random and taking it to a shadowy corner. He doesn't intrude and she begins to feel, strangely, that when he is not there the room is a degree or two colder, and none of the chairs as comfortable. Once in a while he reads a poem to her, out loud. He always asks her permission first. "I don't believe in forcing poetry on people," he says. "It never does any good in the long run, or at least... I don't think it does."

As he speaks the words, she seems to see them all in him: the hawk, the crow, the wolf.


One day he comes up behind her in a hallway. She didn't hear him approach. He touches her elbow.

"Can I show you something?" His voice is quiet, almost hesitant.

"Of course," she says. She cannot, anyway, remember quite where she was heading.

He takes her hand and leads her through the twisting carpeted corridors, and up narrow stone staircases, and through foyers and antechambers and rooms within rooms. There is a mezzanine with coloured tiles in intricate designs, and a fountain playing. Silver coins wink at her from beneath the shallow water. They pass through a narrow panelled room whose walls are lined with cases of dark wood. In each one a bird or an animal is arranged in a stiff, not-quite-lifelike pose -- a lioness protecting her cubs; an eagle on a branch, wings spread. They gaze at her in silence, their glass eyes telling her nothing. He tugs gently at her arm, and they hurry on.

At last he stops in front of a heavy oak door. When she pushes, it opens smoothly and closes silently again behind them.

The room is dark. It is a theatre, she thinks. The rows of seats are arranged in curving tiers, all the way down to the stage. As she steps forward, the red velvet curtains in front of the stage draw apart, but instead of scenery and actors, they reveal a sort of wide rectangular screen, stretching across the space. Pictures seem to flicker across it: she sees round, bright eyes, and then something that might be an owl, then a stag on a hill. A flock of birds like black smudges in the sky. The high canopy of a forest, with something tumbling heavily, recklessly through the branches.

"Sit down," he says. "Just along here, I think. You'll want a good view."

"What is it?"

"Oh, just another thing that hasn't been invented yet. As far as I'm aware, anyway."

"It's beautiful." She sits watching the pictures on the screen. They are mesmerising. Without looking at him, she asks, "Just out of interest, why--"

But then she breaks off. Music is coming from somewhere. A sort of trembling, jangling music. It sounds as though a hidden somebody is playing an organ or a harpsichord.

"Shh," he whispers. "Watch and listen. It's going to tell you a story."

The story is a strange one, told in flickering light and shades of grey and silver. It is about a girl, and an island, and a monster. A beast. The monster captures the girl, but he does not kill her. The monster falls in love with the girl, and he will follow her anywhere, all across the world. At the end of the story, he carries her in his monstrous hand to the top of a high tower, and there the people kill him for daring to love the girl.

She thinks, although she cannot be sure, that perhaps the girl loves the monster, too.

When the story is ended and the screen goes dark, she finds that her hands are screwed into tight fists, the fingernails pressing painfully into the palms. She wants to cry. She stands up, unsure of herself.

"Are you all right?" he asks. His voice comes, low and quiet, out of the dark.

"Yes," she says. "It was a sad story, that's all."

He moves to stand beside her. He is silent for a while, and then he says, "I think the room's changing."

It is -- she can hear its creaks and whispers. There is a different quality to the air, as though someone has opened a window, or just quietly removed the walls. The floor is strange beneath her feet and when she leans down and touches it, it no longer feels like the red and gold patterned carpet, but like damp leaves and moss. The walls are bark and branches and leaves, and they bend, murmuring, in the wind. By the light of the moon and stars now hanging in place of the ceiling, she sees the faint outlines of their trunks, dwindling into deep gloom.

In the far distance, something howls.

"Are you afraid?" he asks. He turns toward her and when he speaks she feels his breath on her skin, warm, damp and sudden.

"We're in the forest," she says, although it's not really an answer. "There are wild things in the forest."

"Ah," he sighs. "That's true enough." And she half-wonders whether it was his voice at all, or whether it was only the wind in the dark branches, the damp dripping onto leaf-mould on the forest floor.

She reaches for him without thinking. She only wants to prove to herself that he is a real and solid thing; a creature not of shadows, but of flesh and muscle, hair and bone. A thing that does not shift about, but stays in one place and is tangible. Knowable.

In the darkness, she finds him. Under her hand, his lungs rising and falling. His heart beating. On her neck, his mouth. His tongue. His teeth.

It comes to her, at last, that there are wild things in the forest. And in the fields and the rivers and the seas, and in all the cities and the towns and the villages. They are in the people's houses, and the babies' cradles, and deep, deep under the earth. Because the wildness is everywhere, and you cannot ever really escape it.


In her father's house, she walks around and runs her hands over things: the heavy wooden shutters; the shallow depression where the kitchen door bangs back against the wall; her mother's china that they keep for best and consequently never use at all. She touches a plate gently with one finger, following its pattern of wreathed roses, and she smiles. She's flooded with a sense of relief and gratitude, mixed with a niggling feeling that her comfortable place in the world has become too small for her, or that she has grown into the wrong shape. Either way, it's a space she can't seem to squeeze herself back into.

Her father smiles and puts his arms around her. He calls her his dear child, and wipes away a tear. He's always been a small man, but there seems something deflated about him now. He is a man, she thinks, who has never been able to finish his sentences. She wonders how she never noticed that before.

"Oh, I've missed you," she says, and it's not entirely a lie. She has missed him, and she does miss him, even now. Even here, with his thin arms gripping her, and the whiskers on his chin tickling her face, she still misses him. Because the thing is -- and she hasn't fully realised this until now -- she can't go back. Once you've left, you can never go back. Not really.

Her sisters are no longer sure of her. They don't ruffle her hair any more, or laugh at her, they don't call her 'Beauty'. They don't call her anything. They no longer ignore her, though. They are silent and watchful, their eyes wide and their lips parted, as though they want to ask, but have forgotten all the questions.

She makes tea, and plays chess with her father in front of the hearth, and tries to be comfortable and safe and ordinary, like in the old days. She puts to the back of her mind the knowledge that the old days were not really comfortable or safe or ordinary either. It's just that all their sharp edges have been dulled and worn down over the years, accommodated, made room for.

"It's so nice to be home," she says, and leans her head against the old horsehair sofa. The chess set is from the old days, its pieces carved from heavy soapstone. Her father's men are greyish-white, like doves, and hers not black but a mottled green. When she reaches over to make her move, the little horse-headed knight feels smooth and familiar in her hand. She hesitates before setting it down again.

Her father darts a quick smile at her before hunching over the board. He is like a bird, she thinks. She can imagine him huddled on a branch in the rain, now and then shaking the drops from his feathers.

"What, er..." he says softly. He doesn't look at her. "The, you know, him. Is he -- has it been..."

"It's all right," she says. "Honestly."

"But, what...?"

"Do you mind if we don't talk about it?"

"No, no, no... of course, of course. Only, I can't help but feel... well..."

She sighs. "Nobody made me go. It was my decision, and I went, and then I came back and now I'm here. And everything's perfectly all right, isn't it?" She runs a hand through her hair, suddenly tired. "And anyway... it's your move."

He looks up at her, smiles and blinks. "Actually, my dear, I think it's yours." He holds out his hand to her, open-palmed. He has taken her rook.

She wonders whether it was a mistake to come back here. Perhaps the mistake was leaving in the first place. But at least they were her mistakes. Her mistakes and hers alone, and she will go on making them until the day that she doesn't.

"Are you sure you're all right?" asks her father, leaning forward. His face is kind and vague, soft in the firelight.


It's raining the day she goes back. The house is a catacomb of dark, echoing corridors. In her old room the fire is unlit. She can hear the rainstorm battering itself against the window, trying to blow itself out.

When the weather lets up a bit, she goes outside into the garden and follows the snaking gravel paths between beds of sodden earth. The hedges soak her coat when she brushes past them. There seem to be more gates now, although they look as though they have been here many years. They drag creakily on their hinges, leaving her hands damp and mossy. The topiary creatures are shaggy and unkempt. They turn their solemn, eyeless gaze on her as she passes.

She finds him where she expects to, in the place where they first met, sitting on that same bench. He has no notebook now; he is just sitting. His head is bowed. He hides under no hat or scarf. She can see him quite clearly, and her breath catches in her throat. She does not know how she could have been so blind.

He does not look up. She wonders if he even knows she's here. The drip, drip of the black-barked trees sounds like the ticking of a clock in the still air. She hesitates for a second before stepping forward.

"It's me," she says. "I'm back."