Well now, hello hello! Look who’s up as early as I am on this hazy Summer dawn! Come on in – well over, let’s sit at the side table today, while it’s still cool enough to breathe outside. Grapes in the basket – I find fruit is my favourite breakfast lately, and these are extra bright and juicy. They’ll wake you up!
Oh I expect Clover is still sleeping in the forest. You might see little Violets – this is her stretching time – oh yes, there she is, on the windowsill, blinking – hello sweetie!
Well now I did promise I would tell you, and now here you are, and it’s quiet, so I’ll tell you. Now’s as good a time as any, and possibly a better time than any, for this spooky tale from my most Bohemian days, when I came face to face with – but let me back up a bit, and tell you first about the Shadowpark.
Back in University, my second year, I was at Peak Bohemian – I spoke in poetry, was comically poor, wore layers of outlandish clothes, and my hair long and wild. Where I was living at the time was just a couple blocks from a public park that spread across two sides of the main road – I found out later that it was unimaginatively called Central Park on the maps, but because of the way it made me feel, when I walked there in the middle of the night, I had dubbed it the Shadowpark.
It became my strongest muse for months, ending up in poetry (poetry that sometimes took me relentlessly, forcing me to scrawl it on any scrap of paper I had, bits of envelope, grocery receipts, as the poetry marched me up and down streets, through driving rain, not letting me go) and the language of my every breath as I danced through dreamish days.
In those days I joked that I had a Snark’s sleeping habits, to wit (and here’s Mister Carroll with my explanation):
Its habit of getting up late you’ll agree
That it carries too far, when I say
That it frequently breakfasts at five-o’clock tea
And dines on the following day.
And so I had taken to long walks well after dark – Ottawa at that time was ridiculously safe at all hours, and you were more likely to simply run into other bohemians in the middle of the night than you were likely to run into any kind of harm – and the Shadowpark became my favourite hangout, for reasons that will become apparent.
First, a bit of geography.
Because the park spread over two sides of the main road, each side of the park had its own unique character. On the one side, there were charming lampposts lining a path down to a small lake (manmade pond, really), which I dubbed ‘Candleglass Lake’ for how it reflected the lampposts. This side was calmer, sweeter, and more likely to have other humans walking quietly in it. I called this ‘The Lakeward Side’.
The other side was a bit wilder. Not as much of a path, but a large grassy mound that I dubbed ‘The Poet’s Mound’ (in case you can’t tell by now, I really was insufferable in those days). Beyond that, there was an expanse of grass and bushes, and several exceptionally tall trees towards the back.
One especially captivating feature of this side of the Shadowpark was that at Deepnight – my word for 3am – the mist would roll in like a deep, silent wave, and suddenly everything would become extra magical.
So I called this ‘The Mistward Side’.
Alone or with one or more friends I had dragged along, I would troop down to the Shadowpark around 2am, dancing and singing all the way, flapping the shredded sleeves of my hooded sweater as I went. There, I would dance in the mist when it came, and try to encourage my accompaniment to do the same. And there was wild numinosity even from that – one friend excitedly told me at one point that he had seen me become a bush, only to leap out from another bush on the other side of the park a moment later. I giggled when he told me, not having been conscious of any physical teleportation, but not really doubting it either.
The place was charged, when the mist rolled in. Anything could happen.
So – one night, with one friend in tow, I made my way down to the Shadowpark just in time to watch the mist roll in. I danced and sang and we found ourselves near the giant trees at the back of the park, and so we decided tonight’s game would be to go up very close to each tree, press up right against them and look up into their branches, to try to feel how they felt.
There was one tree that was very maternal-feeling – she had a ‘lap’ that I had often sat on, a flattened bit of root that was just the right size – and predictably it was maternal warmth I felt from her, when I pressed in and looked up. Another tree, beside her, one she always seemed to be reaching to, seemed to be arched back in a shout of agony, but from that one we got only strength – a shout of strength.
And so we felt out all the trees in the back of the park, until there was one lone grey tree, growing its slanted height at the far right left, un-felt, so I made my dancing way over, and pressed in.
NOT THIS SIDE, I felt immediately.
Dance-stumbling back, I edged around to the other side, reoriented to the towering grey tree before me, pressed in, and looked up.
Wild tangle of branches and cloudy night sky beyond, starless but luminous from the cloud and mist.
And then I saw it, in the second fork of branches in the tree.
A face, looking back at me.
There was never a moment where I felt I could tell myself, “Oh, that is just a shaping of a knot in the wood that looks like a face under this lighting.” You know when something intelligent is staring at you. You feel it. This face, this stare, was intense, eyes that felt like piercing stars in the dark band across them like an animal’s mask, a grin like the threatening grin of a badger, that transfixes as well as threatens.
I staggered back, expecting as I did, if it was a knot in the wood of the branch, that by the laws of perspective the bump should recede back into the fork, invisible from any angle but the one I had seen it from.
But it didn’t.
With my movement, matching my movement, the thing rose up, and now there was a hand as well, long and bony, spreading through the bark below, and the grin intensified.
It was a part of the tree, embedded or inhabiting or manifesting, I didn’t know. I only knew that it had seen me, and was making itself seen, grinning its grin, with its long, clawed hand and striped face, as still as I was, daring me to come closer, daring me to move.
For a moment it held me there, I stood and shivered, my breath’s steam adding to the mist, the whole world stopped.
Then I managed to break away, scramble over to find my friend, and somehow – gibberingly I expect – get him to come and look up too.
I didn’t tell him what to look for, only to look up.
After a moment he gasped, and whispered:
“The second fork.”
I looked up again. The thing was still very much there, if anything more defined, and a bit of arm now visible above the hand.
I don’t know how long we looked, but the next thing I knew, we were walking very quickly back to my place, giggling in barely-suppressed panic.
Neither one of us could get that face out of our heads. My friend had seen it as a skull more than badger-like (by which I mean a round, humanish-if-fae-type face, but with badger or raccoon-like banded markings, and of course that intense grin) – and I was never sure whether it was our own what-we-brought-to-it that interpreted what we saw those different ways, or if the thing really had shown me a badger and him a skull.
Back in my place, there was no chance of sleep, so my apartment-mates woke to find us making noodle soup in the kitchen just before 5am, to try to calm our nerves, before my friend went to his own home to try to sleep.
We met up later on, that evening or maybe days later, and maybe we talked about it again then, but I don’t remember much about it. As Stoppard says, two is the ideal number of people to witness an extraordinary thing – and there was never a sense that he denied what he’d seen – but there was, perhaps, a sense that he wanted to forget about it and move on.
I noticed a fairly disturbing thing – for me – about this experience, when it came to relating it to other people.
It wasn’t that I was doubted. Nobody ever said anything like, “Oh you’re making that up!” or “Oh, you dreamed that.” Nothing so movie-predictable.
I told people. I told LOTS of people. I mean here it was – I had been searching for magic and otherworldly things my entire life and here at last I had found it, with a witness in tow. The World Was Changed Forever!
And most of them simply didn’t seem to care.
They listened, but then they just nodded, and changed the subject.
I mean – maybe it wasn’t that they didn’t care. Maybe it was that because it didn’t fit into the context of what they considered ‘life’, they simply couldn’t care.
I didn’t blame them. I was just baffled.
I did manage to bring another friend down there on a later night – the shape of the thing tended to stay visible in that second fork at all hours and states of daylight or lack thereof from that day forward, but never again with that intensity, that feeling of being absolutely looked at, with meaningly bared needle-teeth. The night I brought that other friend down there, I sat by the mothering tree and sent him over to look by himself.
He came back after a moment, hugging himself.
“I didn’t see anything,” he said quietly, shakily, “But I felt something I did not like.”
So – time, time, and time passed and passed. I don’t even know if that tree is still standing, if that park is still The Shadowpark, or even if it’s still a park, what with rampant city development and all.
But that was my story, the one I promised to tell you, and now you know it.
Ahhh well, deep breath. Have a grape.
No, I’ll tell you no – they say to eat something to ground yourself after something like that and I’ll tell you no, it did not help. We were just as panicky after the noodles as before. That face stayed in our eyes all the way until we fell too deeply asleep that day to keep it – and this by broad daylight, by the time we got to sleep.
The world is full of wonders. And they are not toys. They do not have to be cute, mild, friendly, or whimsical. They do not necessarily want to dance with you in mist. They are wild as any wild things, and must be treated with the same deep respect. And that’s a Truth.
So! I send you out into this hazy new day, full of grapes and a story that may or may not stick in your mind’s eyeballs, that all the noodle soup in the world will not cure. But you came to me for magic and this is one of the most potent doses I can deal.
You are welcome!
And anyway, it’s not all to be worried about – worry is useless anyway. Just be your best being, that’s all any of us can do. That’s all any of us are doing!
And here’s Clover now, coming up the walk, still a bit sleepy I see, still a bit tousled. Hello Clover, good morning dear one!
(I’ll whisper this – he’ll nap on the couch in the book room for a bit. He likes to wake up here his second waking and then reach for a book, some days.)
Take some grapes with you for the day – they’re saying it’s going to be very hot and humid, so you’ll need the fluids and invigoration.
Until next time! Be well! And exercise caution when looking up into the branches of trees after Deepnight!
See you soon!