A few years ago an author who’d had a big impact on me as a child died. I found out about her death about a month after the fact and felt gutted. Really gutted. I’d reread a few of her books over more recent years, having met and married someone who’d stayed more of a fan than I had, and they were joyous. It was Diana Wynne Jones, a truly wonderful writer.
I didn’t have any way to get the emotion out, other than write a short story. It wasn’t massively original and I haven’t done anything with it over the intervening few years. I’ve ploughed on with my novel-shaped projects and largely forgotten my short stories.
Today Sir Terry Pratchett died. And I found myself thinking of the short story. It doesn’t come anywhere close to doing justice to the influence he’s had on my life. I honestly would be a different person if I’d not read any of his books. But it’s all I’ve got at the moment.
Deep In The Forest
Deep in the forest, beyond where the foxes and rabbits and crows venture, past the uprooted oak and near the old smuggling cave, a figure sits on a rock. It is a tall figure, with shaggy hair hanging down as it holds its head in its hands. The figure has goatish legs and a tail that flicks this way and that like a lion on the prowl. The figure lifts its head up to what little brave starlight filters down through the leaves. Tears gleam on its face.
The figure opens its mouth and lets out a ragged cry, a wordless scream that could be understood by anyone or anything, at any time or in any place. The figure stands, panting from the exertion of emotion. It starts to run, hooves gouging at the ground, tearing great chunks free. All the creatures that thrive in darkness, the small hiding ones, the clawed hunting ones, they all scuttle away from the figure as it thuds onwards.
High in a tower made of black stone that echoes with terror, a young man stares out of a solitary window. The room is filled with all the busy paraphernalia of youth, the thousand things that have piqued his interest today and the thousand more that might tomorrow. His spidery hands grip the window ledge until stone cracks. Tears roll down his face, kicking up metres of dust as they hit the hungry earth far below. In silence he turns and leaves the room. He runs down spiral staircase, taking the steps first one at a time, then two, then more. He flicks his hands just so and he’s flying down them, spiralling round and around and around again.
The figure with the goatish legs pauses as it reaches the edge of the forest. Its eyes, yellow and pointed, flick left and right, left and right. Pace by pace it continues on, building into a run once more. Over dark plains of grass it goes, through fields of wheat and corn and earth. It reaches a road where indiscriminate cars whine past, and leaps it in one single bound. It can see the lights up ahead now, the hazy place where it has always feared to go.
The young man flies out through the door of the tower. Great splinters of wood and iron stab the night as he continues onwards and upwards. He is oblivious to the cold as he embraces the clouds. He ducks down to study the black patchwork spread beneath him. Blisters of light pock the land spoiling the mysteries of night. A plane glides through the air near him, but the shades are down, the passengers oblivious. With a surge of energy the young man flies faster, ever faster.
The figure is almost there. It pounds down pavements, hooves starting to split under the concrete pressure. The streets are empty, the night-people instinctively knowing to stay out of the way. A tall building rises ahead of the figure, and it quickens its pace further still.
Down the young man flies, gaining speed as he does so. The bright haze becomes a series of lights, becomes a network of roads and houses, a map that is unreadable by the young man. There is a tall building in the centre of the map though, and this, he knows, is the place.
The figure stumbles. It falls to the floor. It tries to stand but its legs won’t work. It lets out another cry, thrashes with its arms and starts to claw its way forwards.
The young man suddenly loses control. He is tumbling now, not flying, and the ground welcomes him to its bosom in a bone-shattering embrace. He skids across grass and paving until he hits the wall of the tall building. He opens his eyes and sees the figure with the goatish legs crawling, scrabbling forwards.
They lock eyes, these two. Sworn enemies since time began, they have fought each other and they have been brothers. They have seen every triumph and every humiliation they thought possible. But here, on this day, all is forgotten, all is irrelevant. In that shared moment, every death is forgiven and every betrayal understood. Each sees fear on the other’s face.
The figure stops scrabbling and lies still, panting no more.
The young man closes his eyes and slumps forwards.
Above, on the top floor of the tall building, the author breathes out for the last time. The machines are switched off, the sheet is pulled up. No surprise resurrections, no last-minute potions.
The story is over.