There are three most magical times in the wood. These times are sunrise, sunset, and midnight. Many things do occur at noon in the wood, but noon is a marker for men, not magic. At these times, light and darkness play with the eyes and with vision itself; they have no need to make their stories congruent with the trees, the paths, the underbrush. They write their own stories. Some people say midnight itself is a construct and exists only because men have made a clock, but dark things are best suited to dark times. You might say any time between sundown and sunup is a magical time in the wood.
The most important choice a traveller might ever have to make, at the very centre of the wood, at one magical time or the other, is which way to go. What a dilemma that would be, to find oneself at a crossing, just at sundown, or in the middle of the night, to wonder which path would lead one out of the wood. The wood knows: at these magical times, there is no path out.
Consider little Mary, daughter of the miller who owns the sawmill in the valley. She knows the wood very well, and it's only bad luck she left her friend's house in town too late to get through the wood and down to her father's house before the evening darkened into night.
Then, imagine Mr Robert Davis, who has been told that if he steps into the wood and speaks to no one, he will arrive at a magical crossroads where he can make a pact with Satan. His immortal soul, the traditional price, is not of any use to him.
Now consider that these two people, a ten-year-old girl and a man of twenty-five, are in the wood on the same night.
Mary is familiar with the forest, but not the legend: her father disregards fanciful stories.
Mr Davis, on the other hand, is familiar with the legend, but not the forest. He has a pocket compass and a rough map of the forest and the area surrounding it, and a sandwich in his knapsack.
Mary rushed until she realised dusk would overtake her. In the dark, it's better to go slowly. She took note of everything around her, the width of the path, the birdcalls, the shapes of leaves, before the light truly left; that way she was less likely to see the impossible once the light did go.
Robert picked his way carefully along the path. He had walked all afternoon; the wood didn't seem to be giving up any centre or secret that he could discern. His plan had been to find the crossroads, turn back, wait until dusk,then enter it again. He expected the devil would be there to greet him: after all, no one had ever heard of the devil refusing to trade someone's soul for some earthly talent or enrichment. Mr Davis had a daunting list of desires, starting with fame and fortune on the believable end and working up to godlike powers of persuasion and immortality toward the fanciful side of the spectrum.
Mary picked some blackberries before the light grew too dim. She might need something to eat eventually. Very soon, she knew she'd come to the crossroads where the path would widen out and lead her down to the sawmill.
Mr Davis had now found the crossroads and turned back, giving himself about a hundred yards' worth of walking to reach the crossroads sign. With nothing to do but wait, he took a ploughman's sandwich out of his knapsack and ate it. He did not notice the trees or birds overmuch; the wood was a landscape through which he was travelling, nothing to detail or sketch or write about. In time, he decided on a nap.
Mary knew the crossroads was just up ahead, and she was grateful there was still a little light to see by. While her senses knew she'd just be travelling on ahead, she welcomed the idea of being able to see the sign. As familiar as she was with the wood, she'd never been this deep after dark.
As she continued walking toward the crossroads, Mary noticed a glow of light. How odd; there was a light at the crossroads. Had it always been there?
Robert woke up just as the light was going; that was a lucky break. He gave it several minutes and stood up to begin retracing the hundred yards back to the crossroads. He was excited, and a little bit afraid.
Mary took a berry out of her basket and sucked on it. Summer blackberries were the best: she should have picked more. It was so interesting that there was a light at the crossroads. The closer she got, the brighter it became, so bright in fact that she managed to pick a few more blackberries. These she put in her big cloak pocket: they seemed somehow more special having been picked by the light of the crossroads lantern. At the edge of the crossroads, she hesitated. The lamp shone brightly, right in the middle of the crossroads, illuminating the directional signs that helped show the way to this or that landmark within the wood, and up ahead, to her father's sawmill.
Mary dabbled her fingers in her big cloak pocket and felt four blackberries there. Without thinking, she took one out and put it in her mouth, letting it almost melt into her tongue before she chewed and swallowed. It was good.
Robert saw the lamp in the distance. How odd, that there should be a lamp at a forest intersection. Then again, he was expecting this to be an odd night, so forward he went, concentrating on not looking directly at the light so he wouldn't have spots in his eyes. He stayed on the edge of the crossroads clearing for a few minutes, getting used to the light. Would Lucifer appear immediately, or would Robert have to wait under the lamp for a few moments?
Mary walked out onto the wide, lit crossroads. How lovely to have such light in the middle of the wood. She walked around the edge of the crossroads, watching her shadow change depending on her proximity to the lamp. She did not notice Robert there in the shadows: she was too intent upon the light and the taste of the blackberry juice.
Surely Lucifer would not appear in the guise of a little girl, Robert thought. She could be no more than nine or ten years old, but she appeared completely unafraid. Perhaps she was the devil. How did one address the devil when he appeared as a little girl? Robert hadn't a clue. Surely the devil could not embody something so innocent. There would be some kind of tell: a boil on her face, a lopsided eye. But when he looked more carefully, he could see only a little girl skipping around the lamp in the centre of the crossroads. But then Robert had an idea. There were so many stories of men cheating the devil. Robert didn't value his immortal soul overmuch; he'd never really seen what a soul did or did not do for a man. But it might be more fun to trick the devil into taking another soul. Yes, that sounded like a very interesting idea, indeed.
Mary went around in one direction (widdershins, if you must know) until she got dizzy. Then, she walked uncertainly into the very middle of the crossroads and hung on to the lamp-post until she felt a bit better.
"Hello," came a voice from beside her, or behind her. Mary was still a bit dizzy. "Don't worry," the voice said. "I don't want to hurt you. I was just waiting for someone, and I wondered if you might know him."
Mary's heart beat faster. "I can't imagine who might be out in the wood in the middle of the night," she said. "I am just stopping for a moment before going on to my father's house at the bottom of the wood. It's not very far from here. Are you lost?"
Robert smiled. If only she knew. "No, sweetheart, I'm not lost. Just waiting for someone. I was sure he'd be here by now." Robert walked out into the light, so that the little girl could see him for what he was: a young man of no consequence at all, with a little knapsack on his back.
"Oh, good; I'm glad you're not lost," said Mary. "These aren't very big woods, but I'm not sure what lies in that direction, or even in the direction you've come from."
"As long as you know where you're going, that's the important thing, my duck," said Robert. He took two more steps into the clearing. Behind him, there was a rustling noise.
Before he could turn around, Mary said, "Goodness! The blackberries have grown right over your path, Mister ...."
"Davis," said Robert. "Robert Davis." He turned back toward the path. "That they have. That's odd."
There was another rustling sound, and Mary didn't have to turn around to imagine what it was. "Was that my path?" she asked.
"I didn't see where you came from," replied Robert. "But yes, there's another path all covered with brambles now."
"I cannot leave until the gentleman I'm waiting for arrives," said Robert. "But perhaps you ought to scoot for home before another path gets covered up."
"I think I will. But would you like some blackberries before I go?" She reached into her big cloak pocket.
Robert considered. This might be the right time. With two paths blocked and the Devil Himself coming down one of them in the not-too-distant future, surely he could bargain the little girl away and leave the wood both with his heart's desire and his soul intact. "I would love some blackberries," he said.
Mary skipped over to Mr Davis and handed him a blackberry from her pocket. "There you are," she said.
Robert put the blackberry in his mouth. "Oh, that's lovely," he said. "Do you have any more where that came from?"
Being ten, Mary was quite literal. "Only two," she said as she produced the last two blackberries from her pocket. She looked up at Robert. "What's wrong with your face?" she asked. A shadow had fallen over Robert's face. It was thicker than a shadow. She reached up to pull some of it away and found it came away in her hand easily. "Look at that."
Robert hmphed. He took the two leftover blackberries. "I can't feel anything," he said, when he ran his hands over his face. "But if you see something there, you should try to get it off."
Mary reached up again. "I can't reach," she said.
"Oh, that's all right, dearie-do, I'll just pick you up, and then you can reach."
Mary pulled and pulled. Why couldn't Mr Davis see the shadow? It felt like rubber. She pulled some more. "There, that's got it all," she said. For lack of anything better to do with it, she popped the blob of rubbery shadow into the basket.
"Thank you, sweetling," said Robert. His breath smelled of blackberries. "Now, I'm sorry, but I have to keep you with me just a little while longer."
Mary screamed a high-pitched screech that might have woken the whole wood. Robert clamped a hand over her mouth. "No, no; you need to stay quiet. I have work for you to do."
Robert walked out into the centre of the crossroads. "Infernal master!" he shouted. "I have brought a soul to bargain with!"
Mary screamed under his hand, but there was no sound.
Soon, Robert could hear hoofbeats coming, but he couldn't hear the direction from which they originated. Perhaps the little girl could hear. "Can you tell where the hoofbeats are coming from?"
Mary shook her head, but pointed to the third path. Robert turned and saw the third path was now covered with brambles as well. "Not much of a crossroads, is it?" he asked. "Where are the hoofbeats coming from, girl?" Without thinking, he uncovered Mary’s mouth.
"Where else could they be from?" Mary asked. She pointed. "Now, you let me go, or I'll scream louder."
Robert kissed his teeth. "You know I can't let you go, dearie. You're my lucky charm."
Mary began to struggle as the hoofbeats sounded louder and louder. She managed to free an arm and hit Robert soundly on the ear, just before all sound in the clearing stopped. Mary turned to see. "Papa!" she cried joyfully.
Dumbfoundedly, Robert dropped the little girl to the ground as she ran toward what he could only have described as a demon. The stink of sulphur filled the air in the clearing. "Wait, sweetling! I don't think that's your papa!"
Mary jumped into her father's arms. He smiled kindly at her and ruffled his fingers through her hair.
"I was worried about you, ducky-darling. Thought you'd got yourself lost in the wood."
Robert took two steps forward and realised the hoofbeats had been the cloven hooves upon which he stood. "Now, Mr Robert Davis, do you have some business with me?" He cradled Mary on his shoulder.
Robert couldn't help but take a step back. "I came to ask for my heart's desire."
Lucifer, Mary's papa, laughed heartily. "And why on earth would I grant a little man like you his heart's desire?"
Robert began to stammer. "I am willing to make a bargain."
With a flick of his bifurcated tail, the Prince of Darkness tapped on Mary's little basket. "Do please name your terms," he said affably.
"I have a list," Robert stammered. He held it out, and the devil switched his tail around to grab it. Robert could barely contain his disgust at the stench. And there was little Mary, happily asleep on his shoulder? This must be some nightmare.
"This is quite a list," Lucifer said. "And what do you have to give me, if I give you even three things off this list?"
"My immortal soul?" It was hard to say that when your lips were shaking.
The devil laughed. His tail snaked back again to tap on Mary's basket, only this time, a little ball of rubbery shadow bounced out of the basket. "You mean this little thing?"
Robert stared as the shadow bounced against the beast's tail and elongated into a shadowy caricature of him, knapsack and all.
"Yes. This is your soul. Don't worry; I'll keep it safe for you."
"And in return, I demand that you give me my heart's desire!"
"Don't be an idiot," said Lucifer. "You don't have a soul to bargain with; you've already given it to lovely Mary here. I believe she gave you some blackberries. Is that right?"
Robert stared. He couldn't speak.
"You little people, always so boring when you lose a little bargain. But don't worry about your soul; I'll keep it safe. You may find it's easier to get all the things on your list without a soul, anyway."
Robert looked at Mary. "Who is she?"
"Little Mary? She is my beloved daughter. I own the sawmill down the hill, you see. She stayed in the village a bit too late this afternoon, and that's how she ended up at the crossroads. Isn't she a little miracle? I'm a very lucky Prince of Darkness."
There was a rustling noise. Robert looked around to see that the brambles had all cleared.
"Just a little showmanship," said Lucifer. "We already knew which path you'd take." He yawned. "But it's time for me to get my little girl home and put her to bed. I suggest you take a nap too, Robert. Just 'til the sun's up. No telling what you'll find in this wood at night." Lucifer clucked at Mary and turned to go. "Well done, my little soul catcher," he whispered.
“The Light at the Crossroads” is a cautionary tale about a foolish man who plans to make a bargain with Satan and fails.
Our class covered the many changing ways place could be used in fiction, and my aim was to create a story in which the landscape was itself a character. To that end, I chose to work with a narrative voice that reminded me of a storyteller.
Throughout the piece, the language of storytelling and fairy tales takes centre stage. We begin with a narrator who is quite distanced from the text who gives us generalities about the wood and about magic, much in the way a fireside storyteller might. The distanced language is intentional: it is a construct intended to establish a familiar tone not unlike that of a picture book narrator or a storyteller.
The narrative begins by focusing on the wood and light in the wood. This choice establishes the wood as not only a landscape, but also as a container, a frame, for magic. This framing is important because it sets a scene as a storyteller might for a fairytale. While we don’t hear the familiar “once upon a time,” we do hear about time and the wood. Our narrator is careful to let us know the wood is its own place; while stories may take place inside it, it has stories of its own. And the idea, pitched just at the end of the forest’s introduction, that there might be no path out of the forest at all, is chilling.
Our narrator continues by introducing us to the two other characters in the story. Mary, a ten-year-old girl, is trying to get home to her father. Robert, a twenty-five-year-old man, wishes to visit the centre of the wood to make a pact with the devil. At first conception, the story was a tale of two people coming to the same magical place at the same magical time with no shared knowledge between them and no relationship prior to their meeting at the crossroads. One character, Mary, is ignorant of the wood’s magic and of the symbolism of time, darkness, and the crossroads. However, the wood is her natural landscape in daylight, and she is unafraid of anything that might be inside the wood. The other character, Robert, is in the wood to find the centre, sometime at night, enter the crossroads, and bargain with the devil. He has no knowledge of the wood. At this point in the story, Mary embodies innocence while Robert’s aim is purely wicked.
Over their short acquaintance, Robert is revealed as more of an innocent than he appears at the beginning of the story. Whether or not Mary knows what her role is in the story is left for the reader to decide. While dark-bad and light-good symbolism is timeless, it was interesting to have the most dangerous part of Robert’s encounter with the wood occur in a brightly-lit area. Both characters seemed to feel safer when they walked into the light, yet the devil seems unmoved by light or darkness.
The story’s title was the last thing put into the manuscript, and I still don’t like it. As always, I’m open to suggestions.