I decided to start with Pat. She lived nearby, literally next door. But that is only if you go directly through Fall Forest, and quite a few do. Truth to be told, nobody goes there. More specifically, no one returns. In general, with Fall Forest, it’s all about saying, not going.
For example, they say it’s always fall there and there is not a single green leaf on the trees. That the vines there end with a sliding loop that is rarely empty. That the hanged men of Fall Forest turn into dry leaves when they decay… That half the leaves lying in the Forest on the ground or falling from the trees are former people. They also say that when the wind rises, these leaves whisper in a wayfarer’s ear the words that make him stay in the Forest forever. First, swaying on a branch, then falling down onto the ground with the other dry leaves — to wait for the wind and another wayfarer. In a word, it’s such a cool place that only a real fool would miss the opportunity to visit it. Of course, I didn’t miss it.
Well, I have never regretted it. Very beautiful, for real. Ground, sky, air — everything there is filled with dry leaves: yellow, red, ginger and all that. And yes, the wind crafts them into eerie, walking figures. Like people or animals or something — all done from dry leaves, all ragged, spotted and falling apart at each step. And yes, they talk — getting after you like hell and whispering things into your ear. What things? Well, the things they believe will drive you mad. The time you wasted, the people you failed to save, the chances you missed… everything like that. But what could they say to a twelve-year-old boy who, moreover, does not mature? They could say nothing. So they did.
True, when I already was leaving the Forest, they called out to me once again. These two looked a bit more solid than the others, but still, there was sun shining through their bodies, and there was mold and rot and soil on them here and there. For all that, it was difficult not to recognize them. Father and mother, who else. They said they love me. Well, I love them too. They said they miss me. No problem, same with me. They asked me to stay with them.
“Sure,” I answered like I always did with them. “Another time!”
Then, of course, they started to coax me and that is such a bore, that I took out my cigarettes — just mechanically — and lit one. The leafy parents shut up at once and took to staring at me wide-eyed. The forest kids, you know. Going green, healthy lifestyle and all that. Then I see that I played the fool and I quickly spat out that cigarette.
My parents always told me that smoking was hazardous but I never took that seriously. Well, they were right and I was not. But then, it was too dry there. That forest with all its leaves blazed up in fire, and it was gone in a split second, like some damned dandelion. Once and for all. So, if you were planning a trip to Fall Forest, just forget it. It’s not there anymore.
All in all, this may well be for the better: each poet that failed to hang himself is adding up to a number of living poets, and the living poets adorn our life or, at least, I was taught to believe so. True, the minuses were there too. I was smeared in soot, I burnt all the hairs I had on my body and I stank. The girls do not like that, and Pat, with all due respect, was a girl.
However, when I got to where she was, all this nonsense flew out of my head at once. Pat’s house was not there anymore. In its place on the hill now stood a huge medieval castle. The castle was clean, tidy and quite brand-new. It was disgustingly white, with countless small, silly turrets, and it was just asking for trouble, like to be destroyed or at least besieged. I limited myself to just spitting on the nearest wall and kicking it.
It was a bad idea, I admit it, as the wall at once fell. Falling, it slammed against one of the turrets, and that turret hit another wall, and then things moved on, and in a minute there was not a trace of the castle on the hill — only me and the clouds of settling dust. I felt a little bit ill at ease, because I had no idea how much medieval castles cost nowadays. Not that it really mattered, as I had no money at all. “Now, Siri, this is a problem,” I said to myself.
There was still a small hope that I would be able to fix it before the owner saw, so I started to raise the walls, propping up them with the towers, but that was no good. The damned castle was jerry-rigged with cardboard and was not going to be restored that easily. So, I was standing all alone in the middle of the ruins, holding a piece of cardboard in each hand, trying to combine them somehow, when someone exclaimed right behind my back:
“Good Lord! That’s horrible!”
I turned around at once and saw a princess. This was the real thing; with a gentle pale face, in a blue dress three times as long as she herself, with a crown on her head and a bouquet of flowers in her hands. I took it the poor thing was collecting flowers in the forest while I was destroying her possessions here. But then, if the princess lives here, what did she do with Pat? Anyway, that could wait. First thing’s first — I had to appease the princess somehow.
“What happened here, sir knight?” the princess asked. “Answer me! Was it a dragon?”
To be sure, that dragon was quite a gift to me.
“Yes, your highness,” I answered. “And a nasty one. I tried to shoo him away, but he would not go. I was yelling ‘shoo’ and ‘scat’ and ‘drop it’ and even ‘bad, bad boy!’ — all in vain. He just would not listen. Until he smashed everything to pieces, he did not fly away.”
For all I know about princesses, this is the only right way to speak with them. And what did I get in return?
“What the fuck, man? Are you joking me? What dragon, you doggone bastard? Are you nuts? Do you know how long it took me to build this fucking shit?”
“Wow!” I said, “It’s quite a pleasure to see your highness being so smart and advanced. I believe I have enough education here to answer all those ‘fucks’ and ‘shits’ properly, but the knightly codex would not allow it. Best to change the topic. There used to live a certain Pat here; and if your highness would deign to indicate to me, preferably without strong language, her new address…”
“I’m Pat,” the princess answered, “you, are a miserable wretch.”
“Sure,” I agreed. “In that case, I’m her elder sister. Nice to meet you.”
“Ugh, butthead!” the princess hissed. “Now. Wait.”
She turned away from me and started to do something with her face. Girls are always like that. If she turns away — she is probably putting on makeup. If she goes to the restroom — it is definitely to put on her makeup. If she is late for a date — you bet she was putting on makeup. If she didn’t come at all — she just had no time to put on makeup. It’s all straightforward and clear, the only problem is that Pat had a face no one would be able to copy in a quick minute. And then the princess turned around, and there she was: Pat in person standing in front of me! The cat-like, freckled face and the reddish pigtails are not something that can be easily confused.
“That’s just great!” I said. “The castles, the princesses, the dragons… Have you not played for long enough yet?”
“Look who’s talking! You haven’t grown an inch since last year, you miserable dwarf. Why do you always come visit me out of the blue? There are only troubles with you. Well, what do you want?”
Pat is Pat. I adore her.
“Okay,” I said, “I’m really sorry for the castle. I did not mean to ruin it. I looked in because I am gathering the old team… just to do something… like before. What do you say? Are you in?”
“I must admit, sir knight, I am unpleasantly surprised,” an icy voice answered, making me raise my head.
To tell the truth, before that, I was looking more at her shoes, because it’s not very pleasant to look into the eyes of a person whose house (let alone castle) you just destroyed. Now I raise my head and what do I see? The princess again! When did she have the time to re-disguise herself?
“Yes, I am rather unpleasantly surprised,” the princess continued, “and not so much even by your appearance (which is not appropriate either; did you spend the night in the stable to look and smell like that?), as by the strange hints and proposals you have the insolence to make. You probably confused me with one of your girlfriends… with some Pat, sir knight, and your too obvious dementia is the only excuse. Get out of my sight, sir knight, until my patience is exhausted and I order my men to chop off that useless stump you undeservedly call a head.”
“Have you gone nuts?” I asked in astonishment.
“Headsman!” the princess called out.
“I’m here!” I answered.
“Chop off the head of sir knight,” the princess ordered.
“Just a second, your highness,” I said. “Where is that this ‘sir knight’?”
The princess looked around in confusion and flung her arms into the air.
“Ah, I don’t see him anymore. Apparently he escaped. What a shame! To dodge his own execution! No, I refuse to understand modern men.”
“Pat!” I called out.
“Pat!” I screamed right in her face. The princess shuddered and looked at me, kinda surprised.
“I’ll be back soon,” she announced. “Wait here.”
She turned away for a moment, and repeated her focus with the return of Pat. I was silent. Because, admittedly, I did not understand what was happening here. Pat sighed and knocked on her forehead with her knuckles. The sound was not very good, but it was the expected one. Impudence, audacity, love of life — all that Pat consists of are stored in her heart.
“This is a mask, Siri,” Pat said. I was silent. Maybe, in the end, my brain is just not as large as I would like. In any case, nothing clever came to my mind. Just nothing. Meanwhile, Pat raised her hand for a moment and took off her face, revealing the princess. After that, she returned it to its place at once.
“Now you see? These are just masks. Pat’s mask, the Princess’s mask… Adult girls have many masks, Siri.”
“And where is…” I tried to collect my thoughts. “And where is the real Pat?”
“Of course, she is here, beneath them all.”
“Can I chat with her a minute?”
“No, Siri, you can’t.”
“I can’t take off the princess’s mask. I got stuck in it. I played for too long. So, I grew up and the mask did not. Now it altogether cannot be removed.”
“What a hoax! Let me try.”
She smiled sadly.
“It will not work, Siri. I have had enough of trying already. Just believe me: they tried this way and that. Nothing helps. Nothing.”
She smiled meaningfully. Apparently, that was some kind of hint, but I know better than to ask. Nobody likes to look like a fool.
“I get it,” I said.
“There you go. But I can’t always be a princess. This is terribly uncomfortable when it comes to physiology. It is absolutely impossible to eat normally, and visiting the privy is just hell. I had to make several other masks to wear on top. This one, as you see, is the former Pat. This is the office Pat. And this one…”
“Okay, okay,” I said. “I already understood. I am not a fool here. So what about gathering a team? Are you in or what?”
Pat looked at me with pity.
“You understood nothing, Siri. Princesses don’t go hiking,” she said sadly and removed her mask.
“It’s dirty on hikes, it’s damp on hikes, there are insects there and the chamber pot is constantly lost…” the princess began to list.
“I completely agree with this, your highness,” I said “but can I talk with your maid of honor just for another minute?”
Her Highness gave me a bored look.
“Off with you, sir knight. We are not interested in your silly childish fun. Be off.”
Well, what did I have left to do? I told them all goodbye and was off.