Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in, or been accepted for publication by, The London Journal of Fiction, Popshot, Confingo, Into the Void, Fictive Dream, The Nottingham Review, Structo, Prole, Fairlight Books, Riggwelter, Communion and Footnote, and was awarded second prize in the 2014 and 2016 Bedford International Short Story Competition. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, has been selected to appear in the Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). Another story, The Violet Eye, will shortly be published by Nightjar Publications as a limited-edition chapbook. Contact Mike at: wwwpolyscribe.co.uk
The Wand Maker
It was very difficult to decide what colour his eyes were, although his hair, tied with a topknot, was a cloud of grey. The face beneath was sunburned and lined with age. But the bib and brace and collarless shirt he wore, though grubby, seemed to contain the lithe body of a far younger man. He was tall, and bent forward slightly as he spoke to the young woman who had approached him in the forest clearing.
‘The spell is just the beginning. The world will give you things, but you have to pay its price. Now what is your intention?’
‘My intention?’ The young woman looked confused.
The wand maker turned his head slightly, as if to regard her from a different perspective.
‘The thing you wish for,’ he said.
‘I don’t really know,’ she said. ‘I hoped you could help me. It’s just that I’ve been very troubled recently.’
‘Let’s walk together,’ the wand maker said. ‘The forest, I’ve found, is full of answers, even in the apparent absence of a question.’
They set out on a path through the trees, the wand maker’s gait birdlike, his shoulders sloping, his manner somehow both absent and attentive.
Abigail, walking at his side, found she wanted to tell him things, but at that particular moment couldn’t think what they were. Instead she said, ‘I’ve always loved being outdoors – yours must be a wonderful life.’
‘This life chose me,’ he said, ‘as it chose my father before me, and as it has chosen my son.’
‘You’re married?’ she said, as if this possibility hadn’t occurred to her.
‘Not now,’ he replied.
As they walked on the trees grew more dense, and the air around them thickened into a single green hue, pierced occasionally by flickering rays of sunlight. Soon the modern world was nowhere to be seen, or even thought about.
‘Your life is unusual,’ she said. ‘Do you have a plan for living?’
‘A plan for living?’ His gaze was up amongst the branches.
‘A code of conduct, perhaps? After all, people come to you for advice.’
‘Not exactly,’ he said. ‘I see no value in following prescribed behaviours. I’ve found it more helpful to seek understanding within myself and from what is around me. In that respect the forest has been my teacher and in many ways it tells me what to do.’
Suddenly he stepped off the path and, reaching, drew down a pliable branch of ash.
‘This is what we’re looking for,’ he said. He pulled a serrated blade with a worn beech handle from a pocket running the length of his thigh, then began to cut into the branch, about a foot from where it tapered into twigs. When the branch was severed he muttered something she couldn’t catch before releasing it and returning the blade to his pocket.
‘Now we can go back,’ he said.
They returned along the same path, and then a little further beyond the point where she’d met him, until they reached another small clearing in which stood what she might have called a shed, had its roof not been so steep. He entered and brought out two chairs, with arms and legs the shape of branches, and gestured for her to sit down.
So she found herself drinking a mug of strong tea, made from water heated in a kettle hanging precariously on strings above an open fire. Across from her, in the other chair, the wand maker whittled, then sanded, reaching over occasionally to feel the palm of her hand with his fingers. After the third time he did this she began to notice a tingle of heat travelling up her arm. It was the sort of heat that calms and reassures, like a bath after a hard day.
‘That should be it,’ he said eventually. He passed the carved branch to her, holding the pointed end in his fingers. ‘How does that feel?’ he asked.
She took it from him, frowning, because the question seemed so important. As her hand folded around the smooth timber of the handle it was as if her palm recognised, and had always known, its shape.
‘Now you can ask a question,’ the wand maker said. ‘Ask it silently and wait for the answer.’
Abigail closed her eyes. The moment felt crucial, like a gift that might only come once. She remembered the wand maker’s first words.
‘My intention is to be happy,’ she said, though not aloud. ‘For that to be so, what is the world’s price? And what work must I do to pay it?’
For a while there was utter silence, apart from the wind rustling in the highest leaves. She felt the wand grow warm, and the warmth transmit to her hand, until the two were indistinguishable, and all she could feel was warmth. And then, in sound, shape and colour, some words began to form in her mind. With her eyes still closed she looked upwards, as if to a page or screen beyond her brow, searching, until she saw them clearly.
‘Your work is all that you do, while you’re here. The price of happiness is to remember this each day of your life.’
She opened her eyes and looked around, breathing the sweet air as if it was new to her. The wand maker sat very still, his head bowed, his eyes closed. It was the quietest moment she had ever known. She stood and stretched and looked round at the trees, their roots, leaves and branches fully alive.
Then suddenly, without warning, the wand maker was gone. Had he ever been there? And the hand that held the wand felt empty. She opened her fingers and noticed minute traces of grey ash: surely something had happened to cause that?
And then, as though the daylight could pass through her body, she became aware of her heart, which felt pure and clear, like water, like snow.
© 2018 Mike Fox