It can be pretty isolating to be the child of parents who aren’t getting on. I feel sorry for families right now who are in that position.
This was the cover story in Asimov’s SF in 2012 (the artist was Laura Diehl). It was subsequently collected in The Peacock Cloak, along with another story, ‘Day 29’, which was also set on the imaginary planet Lutania.
Lutania is the prototype for the setting of my most recent novel, Beneath the World, a Sea. In the novel, however, I moved it from an alien planet, to a remote place in South America, the Submundo Delta where life is entirely different to, and completely unrelated, to life anywhere else on Earth.
The Caramel Forest
In the caramel forest the leaves, trunks and branches were all made of the same smooth flesh, like the flesh of mushrooms. It was yellow, grey or pink. A kind of moss covered the ground, pink in colour, and also fleshy and mushroom-like. And there were ponds, every hundred yards or so, picked out by the pale sunlight that elsewhere in the forest was largely filtered out by trees. The ponds were surrounded by clumps of spongy vegetation, pink or white or yellow.
But the children, pressing their faces to the car windows, were trying to spot something more interesting than trees and ponds. Cassie told Peter he would win five points if he spotted an animal of some kind, and one hundred points for a castle. They’d only ever seen one of those and that had been in ruins, its delicate, butterscotch, shell-like architecture smashed and kicked to pieces by settlers.
But the forest, with its spotlit ponds, remained an empty stage. There were no castles, and no animals either, only the occasional solitary floater drifting through the space between canopy and forest floor, trailing its delicate tendrils, and bumping from time to time against the trees. Cassie didn’t consider floaters either sufficiently animal-like, or sufficiently interesting to deserve a point.
‘We see those all the time,’ she told her little brother, who nevertheless persisted in pointing them out.
‘Those aren’t really ponds, you know,’ she presently informed him. ‘Under the ground they’re all joined up. It’s like a sea covered over by a roof of roots and earth.’
‘Quite right, Cassie,’ said her father, David, from the front passenger seat.
‘I wish we’d see some goblins,’ said Cassie, glancing defiantly at the back of her mother’s head. ‘I’ll give you twenty points, Peter, if you spot us one, and I’ll let you have turn with my microscope as well.’
‘We don’t call them goblins, do we?’ David reminded her. ‘We call them indigenes. They’re just living creatures like us, going about their lives.’
‘Everyone at school calls them goblins,’ said Cassie.
‘Well, most kids in your school are the children of settlers,’ said her father, ‘and they don’t know any better. But we’re Agency people. We’re supposed to set a good example.’
Another floater (which Peter, annoyingly, still pointed out), more ponds, more silent empty space beneath the mushroom-like trees.
‘Most of the kids say that goblins are only good for shooting and nailing up,’ Cassie said off-handedly. ‘They say the Agency is soft.’
‘Well that’s just silly, Cassie. There’s no reason to persecute the indigenes. They harm no one, and they were here for millions of years before the first settlers came.’
‘They give you funny ideas though.’
‘Well, maybe. But that’s probably just their way of protecting themselves.’
‘Protecting themselves?’ Cassie weighed this idea for a moment, tipping her head to one side, then dismissed it with a shrug. ‘Well whatever it’s for, I…’
‘Must you talk about those horrid things all the time?’ interrupted Cassie’s mother, Paula.
She turned a corner, leaving it rather too late, and the car only narrowly avoided a particularly large pond, a small lake almost, with the road running along the edge of it. David winced, but did not comment.
Peter pointed out two more floaters drifting by above the water.
‘You’d better play in the garden when we get back,’ Paula said, half-turning her beautiful but bitter face as they left the pond and headed back into the trees. ‘I need you out of the way so I can get ready for the visitors. We’ve hardly got enough time as it is, let alone with you two getting under my feet.’
‘Honestly Paula,’ David whined. ‘I can’t win. You keep saying how bored and lonely you are. I thought you’d appreciate the company.’
‘Yes, David, but it was just stupid to invite people to come to dinner at 6 o’clock, when you knew that we ourselves would still be two hours’ drive away at 3.’
Cassie tensed. She dreaded her parents’ quarrels.
‘And anyway,’ Paula went on, ‘my idea of company is people who might be interested in talking about things that I like talking about. Not two of your workmates who will just talk shop.’
‘And one of whom you obviously fancy, incidentally,’ she added, ‘ judging by how often you mention her name.’
‘For god’s sake Paula. What was I supposed to do? They called me. They said they’d be passing our way. They asked if we’d be around.’
‘You could have said we were doing something else. You don’t seem to find that hard to say that to me.’
‘Let’s sing some songs,’ Cassie said firmly to her brother.
* * *
The bungalow sat in the middle of a wide bare lawn, surrounded by a two-metre chain link fence to keep indigenes and animals at bay, with floodlights on poles at regular intervals. The lawn, rather startlingly, was green, a colour entirely absent from the surrounding forest.
Juan, the caretaker, sat outside his hut cleaning a gun. He laid it down and limped to the gate to open it for them, nodding, but not smiling, as they passed through.
‘Bo da, senar senara,’ he greeted them with small stiff bow. He could speak English well enough but usually confined himself to Luto.
Cassie organised a game outside in which Peter was a dog called Max, and she was the dog’s owner. Peter was five. She was ten.
‘Woof! Woof!’ said the dog.
All around them was the silent forest. It had a strong sweet smell, like caramel, but with a faint whiff of decay.
‘Woof! Woof! Woof!’
‘Quiet now, Max, I can’t hear myself think.’
It was odd. The one thing Cassie did not want to hear were the sounds of shouts or sobs from within the house, and if she had heard them, she’d had covered them up at once with noisy play. Yet she couldn’t help herself from listening out for them: listening, listening, listening, all the while glancing down the road back into the forest on the far side of the chain link fence, willing their visitors to arrive.
But the forest, that silent, waiting, spotlit stage, was still. Nothing made a sound. Nothing moved except for yet another floater drifting through the trees.
‘We’re on an alien planet,’ Cassie informed her dog Max, who was too young to remember anything else. ‘This is Lutania. We come from Earth, where the trees are green like this grass, and there are no goblins or unicorns, and none of the creatures can talk to you inside your head. One day we’ll go back there, across all that huge huge empty space. Imagine that.’
Was that a sound from the house? She held up her hand to tell her brother to be quiet. But no. It was just something banging in a gust of breeze in the garden of the other house behind hers, the empty house, which, apart from Juan’s hut, was the only other building in the vicinity. They were on their own out here. It was five miles to the next human settlement, and that was a Luto village, the one where Juan’s family lived, with no Agency inhabitants at all. School was another ten miles beyond that.
‘Come here now Max and eat this bone. If you’re good I’ll stroke your head.’
‘Woof!’ said Max, crawling obediently across to her.
‘Oh, wait a minute,’ she said. ‘Here are the visitors. You’d better be Peter again.’
* * *
Every night, through the thin wall of her room, Cassie heard her mother crying.
‘I hate this place…,’ she’d hear Paula sob, ‘I hate this stinking forest…’
‘Ssssssh!’ her father would hiss.
Or, after half an hour of muffled sobs and murmuring, Paula would suddenly cry out:
‘Of course the kids don’t bug you when you’re away all the time.’
‘Shut up,’ Cassie would mutter, on her own in the dark. ‘Shut up, shut up, shut up.’
She’d try and distract herself by thinking about the immense tracts of space between Lutania and Earth. If she could only understand how big that was, she felt, this little house, and this little local difficulty of her mother being miserable and her parents not getting on, would become so small that they’d be of no consequence at all. It was a bleak sort of comfort.
Peter, meanwhile, would sleep peacefully in the room on the other side of hers.
* * *
Right now, though, there were the visitors to attend to. Ernesto and Sheema
‘Sorry about the short notice, but it seemed a shame not to call by when we were in these parts.’
‘Hope we haven’t put you out. Good lord, look at this spread! You shouldn’t have gone to all this trouble!’
‘Nonsense, nonsense,’ cried Paula. ‘No trouble at all. Lovely to see you. We’d have been most offended if you’d passed this way and not come to see us.’
Standing in the corner of the room, hand in hand with Peter, Cassie watched her mother with narrowed eyes. Paula really did seem pleased to see these people, that was the strange thing. She really did seem to mean what she said. She was smiling. She had laughter in her eyes. But that was how she was. You never knew. You could be laughing and joking with her one minute, thinking you were having a lovely time, and then the next look round and see her collapsed and broken, crying hopeless tears.
‘My,’ said Sheema, ‘what beautiful children!’
Cassie turned her attention to Sheema, accepting the compliment with a severe half-smile and a gracious inclination of her head. Sheema was quite pretty, she supposed.
‘Such wonderful red hair too!’ Sheema said, quailing in the intensity of the little girl’s gaze, and turning back hastily to the grown-ups.
* * *
‘Okay, okay,’ Cassie’s father conceded over the empty dinner plates. ‘They have an electromagnetic sense. They communicate with microwaves in some way. The trees act as antennae. I grant you all that, and I grant you that it may allow them to detect human brain activity. But it doesn’t explain how they interpret it…’
‘They don’t interpret it, Dave,’ Sheema said. ‘They pick it up and beam it back to us.’
‘Sure, but you’re not getting my point. They don’t just beam back random signals, do they? They’re able to home in on certain things…’
‘Or perhaps just stimulate certain parts of…’ Ernesto began.
David ignored the interruption.
‘And anyway, Sheema,’ he said, ‘the “beam it back to us” theory doesn’t explain how we manage to receive the signal.’
‘You’re both complicating this unnecessarily,’ Ernesto persisted. ‘Like I say, they don’t receive or send a signal; they just stimulate certain parts of our brains. They disorientate potential predators by stirring up uncomfortable feelings. They don’t have to know what it is they’re dealing with, any more than a chameleon has to know that the red thing it’s sitting on is a tablecloth. It just copies the colour.’
Peter was already in bed. Cassie knew she would soon be sent to bed as well. She glanced between the adults with sharp appraising eyes. Dad and the two visitors were talking louder and louder as the evening went on, and crossly interrupting one another more and more, and yet they were smiling too. They seemed, for some reason, to be having fun. Mum was a bit quiet – she wasn’t a scientist like the other three – but even she was smiling. She did seem very thirsty, though. She was drinking glass after glass of wine.
For a moment, David glanced uneasily at his wife, noticing warning signs. But he returned to the argument all the same.
‘What you’re stubbornly missing, Ernesto,’ he said, laughing angrily and banging his hand on the table. ‘What you’re refusing to consider is this. How can a creature whose nervous system is absolutely nothing like ours at all, home in on our “uncomfortable feelings” and stir them up? One can just about envisage how they or their trees might do this with other Lutanian creatures with similar nervous systems. But with humans? How? How are they able to locate those feelings in our quite different brains?’
‘A good point,’ Sheema acknowledged with a laugh. ‘But what alternative are you suggesting?’
‘I suspect we may eventually need an entirely new theory of the mind. Think about it. We have completely different brains from goblins.’ (For some reason, he was using the word freely, though he always corrected his family when they used it.) ‘They don’t even have neurons, as we understand them – they don’t even have an analogue of neurons – and yet indigenes are able to reach right through the species-specific particularities of the human brain, to find and stimulate the places where we keep our troubles. How can this happen unless pain and distress has some kind of universal form that transcends the particular nervous system which expresses it? And that being so, perhaps we need to radically rethink the place that mind has in the scheme of things. Perhaps we need to stop speaking about space-time, and starting talking about space-time-mind.’
‘But that’s mystical nonsense, David,’ laughed Ernesto, angry and friendly all at once. ‘With great respect, it’s just lazy mystical nonsense. Just because we’ve failed so far to find an explanation in terms of the parameters of physical science, it doesn’t mean we have to give up and rewrite the entire rulebook.’
‘Why not, Ernesto? Why not at least consider that possibility? Space, time and mind.’
David’s eyes were bright. He was in a playground where he felt at home, and he was full of energy, with the cowering, haunted look, so often there, quite absent from his face. But he was careful to avoid looking back at his wife, whose eyes were shining in quite another way.
‘Because it’s twaddle David,’ Ernesto laughed. ‘It’s mystical twaddle!’
Paula rose to collect the plates.
‘Are we ready for dessert?’ she asked in a loud bright voice that Cassie recognised at once as dangerous.
David glanced at her. There was a brief flash of fear in his eyes, but he still turned back stubbornly to his friends.
‘One other point, Ernesto. One other point that people sometimes forget. We’ve been assuming this evolved as a defence against predators, but what predators exactly do we have in mind? It’s not as if…’
‘That was delicious, Paula,’ cut in Sheema, glancing with sudden anxiety at her hostess. ‘I’ll come and help you.’
‘What was it you were saying about goblins?’ Cassie asked the two men as the women left the room. ‘What were you saying about their minds?’
‘Indigenes, darling,’ said her father, barely concealing his irritation at being distracted. ‘Yes, we were just talking about how they somehow make people have uncomfortable thoughts when they get up close.’
‘They don’t make me have uncomfortable thoughts,’ Cassie said.
‘Ah, well maybe you haven’t been near enough to one,’ suggested Ernesto, with a friendly wink.
‘I have so, loads of times. Here and at school. One came right up to the school fence a couple of weeks ago. I liked the thoughts it gave me.’
‘Did you indeed, sweetheart?’
Her father glanced at Ernesto, smiling and raising one eyebrow in a superior and theatrical way that Cassie knew was only made possible by the presence of visitors.
‘It happened, Dad,’ she said coldly. ‘Whether you choose to believe it or not. I liked being near it. But the other kids threw stones at it.’
David laughed uneasily, glancing again at his friend.
‘Nearly time for bed,’ he announced.
‘I haven’t had my pudding yet.’
There was a loud wail from the kitchen.
* * *
‘They’re out there again!’
David rushed to his wife. Cassie hurried after him.
They could see the goblins through the kitchen window: two of them, one squatting, one standing.
‘Make them go!’ sobbed Paula. ‘For God’s sake make the horrible things go away!’
They were thin grey creatures, about the same height as Cassie, picked out by the bluish electric lights around the fence. Neither one of them was looking at the house. Both seemed engrossed in some object that the squatting one was holding up for the other’s inspection: a shell, perhaps, or a piece of stone.
‘Get a grip now Paula,’ muttered David. ‘They’re completely harmless.’
Sheema put her arm round Paula’s shoulders.
‘Easy now, love,’ she said in a warm and gentle voice.
But the look she gave her husband wasn’t warm at all, and seemed to Cassie to refer to some prior exchange between the two of them. Sheema hadn’t wanted to come here, was Cassie’s guess: Sheema had warned Ernesto that Paula would be difficult and make some sort of scene.
David and Ernesto went out through the kitchen door and starting running across the unnatural green of the grass towards the fence, shouting and waving their arms, each one of them with his own set of multiple shadows thrown out by the floodlights.
‘There there,’ Sheema murmured soothingly to Paula. ‘There there. Remember it’s just a silly trick they play. Just a silly trick they play on our minds.’
Cassie stepped just outside the kitchen door, so she could watch everything: the women indoors, the goblins and men outside. The caramel smell wafted from the forest, carrying its faint hint of decay. The moss under the trees glowed softly. The many ponds shone with phosphorescence. And creatures were moving out there, whichever way you looked. The stage was no longer empty.
David ran up to the fence, kicking it and banging on it with the flats of his hands. After a few seconds, the squatting indigene rose very slowly to its feet, and then both it and its companion turned their narrow faces towards David and regarded him with their black button eyes. Their V-shaped mouths resembled the smiles in a child’s drawing.
‘Go on, be off with you!’ David shouted again, quite pointlessly, for the creatures had no ears.
Both goblins tipped their heads on one side – sometimes indigenes could look thoughtful and cunning; at other times they seemed as devoid of intelligent thought as a tree or a toadstool – but neither of them moved away. Behind them, far off in the softly glowing forest, a column of white unicorns was making its way through the trees.
Cassie started to walk down towards the fence.
‘Cassie darling,’ called Sheema without much conviction. ‘Don’t you think you ought to…’
She tailed off – she had no confidence with children – and in that same moment Cassie heard in her head the voice that always spoke in the presence of goblins: her own voice, speaking her own language, but not under her control.
‘Fear,’ it said, ‘but no love.’
Again David banged impotently on the fence. It had no effect on the goblins, but it brought Juan out of his hut, swearing in Luto, with a heavy pulse gun in his hands. He limped to the fence and pointed the gun at the goblins at point blank range, barely acknowledging his employer or his employer’s guests.
‘Be careful Juan,’ began David, ‘no need to…’
Ignoring him, Juan pulled the trigger. The gun only made a faint thudding sound, like a beanbag dumped on a table, but the goblins staggered and clasped their heads.
‘I think that was excessive Juan,’ David said, as the creatures loped off into the forest.
‘You want them to go or not, senar?’
Juan shrugged and turned back to his hut. Cassie knew his children – they went to the same school as her and Peter – and she knew that, if Juan had been given the choice, he’d have killed the goblins without compunction, or maybe caught them and nailed them to a tree. It was what Juan and his friends did for fun when they went hunting out in the forest, with no Agency do-gooders there to pry or to spoil things.
David and Ernesto walked back to the house. Cassie, unnoticed, followed behind them. She could see how David deliberately turned slightly away from his friend, so Ernesto couldn’t see the strain in his face.
‘So?’ asked Ernesto. ‘What did you hear in your head, David? What wisdom came to you through the channel of pure mystical being?’
‘I didn’t pay much attention,’ David said shortly. ‘You know what, though. I really wish Juan would listen to me a bit more, and do what I ask him to do, instead whatever he happens to think best. The Agency pays his salary after all.’
He still hadn’t noticed his daughter following quietly behind them.
‘I heard the voice telling me that I was second rate,’ sighed Ernesto, ‘and that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be as good a scientist as you.’
In the kitchen, Paula was sobbing on Sheema’s shoulder. No one asked her what she’d heard in her head.
David noticed Cassie and told her to go to bed.
* * *
Some nights were sobbing nights. Some were sniffing and snivelling ones. But that night, after Sheema and Ernesto had gone, was the worst kind. Tonight was a wailing night.
‘I can’t stand those things, David. I can’t stand them. Can’t you see that? I just can’t bear another whole year of them. Why can’t you get that? Why doesn’t it matter to you? I know you don’t love me, but don’t you care about me one little bit? Don’t you care at least about the children?’
‘The children are fine with goblins, you know that. And please keep your voice down, or Cassie will hear us.’
‘They’re not fine with goblins. You really don’t understand anything do you? Cassie pretends she’s fine with them as way of coping and trying to keep the peace.’
‘No I don’t,’ hissed Cassie in the darkness. ‘Stop lying about me. Stop lying.’
She banged angrily on the wall. Her parents’ voices subsided immediately to a murmur, but she knew the wailing would soon start up again.
‘Run away, why don’t you?’ asked a voice inside her head. ‘Why hold on to this dream?’
She went to the window. Sure enough, the goblins had come back. They were squatting side by side with their backs against the fence.
Cassie sighed. It was only a matter of time before Paula also sensed their presence, and then there would be no peace at all.
* * *
‘My dad said you had goblins round yours last night,’ said Carmelo next day in the school playground.
Cassie was in her usual refuge, a place close to the fence where she could squat down behind a spongy clump of pink vegetation and be shielded from the general view. Juan’s son had come over specially to seek her out. He was dark and wiry, with clever mocking eyes.
Cassie shrugged. ‘Yeah, we did. I didn’t mind though. I quite like them.’
Beyond the fence lay the silent, empty forest.
‘You quite like them?’
The boy took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it. He was only eleven but he drew the thick soupy smoke into his lungs like a smoker of many years, releasing it slowly with a contented sigh.
He squatted down beside her.
‘Dad said your mum yelled and yelled when those goblins came back again in the night.’
‘Yes, she did. We had to get your dad out of bed again to chase them away. Mum hates goblins.’
‘Well, that makes one person in your family who’s got a bit of sense.’
‘Why? What’s the harm in goblins?’
‘They slowly take over your head, Agency girl. Slowly, slowly. Funny thoughts and dreams: that’s just the beginning. Next thing you know, you’ve forgotten who you are or where you came from, and then you belong to them. That’s why we shoot them and string them up. We’d be goblins ourselves if we didn’t.’
He drew in more smoke and regarded her with narrowed eyes as he let it back out through his mouth and nose. The two them were still only children, but there was a certain electric charge between them all the same. Carmelo constantly mocked Cassie for her stuck-up Agency ways, and she scolded him for his ignorant settler beliefs, and yet he often sought out her company like this, when he could have stayed with the other settler children, or brought them over to tease her.
‘But you’re not allowed to harm goblins,’ she told him primly. ‘It’s against the law. You’re supposed to treat them like people.’
Carmelo made a scornful noise.
‘Like people! We’ve been dealing with goblins here since long long before your Agency came along with its stupid laws. My dad says, when he was a kid, every single village had dried goblins nailed up on gibbets at the gates to warn the others away.’
He drew deeply on the cigarette, regarding her carefully.
‘Goblins were here long before you were,’ Cassie pointed out.
Carmelo laughed as he released the smoke.
‘And we were here long before you, Agency girl. And Yava gave us this world.’
Yava was the settlers’ god, and Cassie knew from experience that there was no point in even discussing him.
‘You shouldn’t smoke, you know,’ she said. ‘It’ll mess up your lungs.’
‘Don’t do this, don’t do that!’ the settler boy mocked her, and took another deep drag. ‘You agency people are all the same.’
‘Well it is bad for you. That’s just the fact of it.’
‘Those goblins didn’t come back again after their second visit, did they?’
‘No. Not after your dad chased them away again.’
The boy snorted.
‘Chased them away!’
‘What? What’s funny about that?’
‘He chased them out of your sight, more like, and then did for the two of them with an axe. That way he got to sleep the rest of the night, without your mum and dad yelling for him every hour or so.’
Cassie stared at him.
‘He killed them?’
‘Of course he did.’
‘But we didn’t want that!’
‘Oh come on, Cassie, they’re only animals.’
‘How could they take over our minds if they were only animals?’
But Carmelo had spotted a floater drifting in over the fence. Taking one quick final drag from his cigarette, he took careful aim and flipped the glowing butt end upwards. There was a hiss of gas as the burning tip made contact, and then the floater sank, slowly deflating, onto the ground.
Carmelo walked over to it, and squeezed out the remaining gas with his foot.
* * *
One night, a month or two later, Cassie was woken in the early hours of morning by her parents quarrelling yet again on the far side of the bedroom wall.
‘Why don’t you listen, David? I – don’t – want – to – stay! Which part of that don’t you understand?’
She got up and went to the window. The lawn outside shone its unnatural green in the bluish glow of the electric lights. Far off in the forest, tall shadowy giraffe-necked creatures were solemnly processing round a shining pond.
‘Why is it impossible, David, why?’ came her mother’s voice. ‘Why can’t you just go to the Agency and say “sorry, we made a mistake, we need to go home before my wife loses her mind, and my kids become even more weird and goblin-like than they already are”? Why is that impossible?’
Cassie considered knocking on the wall as usual. Her parents had already had one row that night. Surely they could see it wasn’t fair to wake her up again?
But she didn’t do it. Something in her mind had clicked into a new position, though she couldn’t have said why, just now, after months and years of this nightly torment. Giving a little firm nod of assent to her own impulse, she pulled on some clothes, and tiptoed quietly to the door. As she touched the handle, her mother’s voice rose yet again in the next room.
‘I know David, but what you’ve got to understand is…’
She closed the door carefully behind her.
* * *
Her brother woke with a start.
‘Peter. Wake up. We’re leaving.’
He always obeyed his sister unquestioningly, but he’d been deeply asleep.
‘Where are we going?’ he wanted to know, while Cassie passed him clothes.
‘Away from here. Mum’s shouting at Dad again.’
Cassie took the key to the compound from the shelf beside the kitchen door, then crept out across the grass with her brother, bleary-eyes, behind her. She slid back the bolt on the gate, very slowly and carefully so as not to disturb Juan, then led Peter briskly through. She headed quickly away from the brightly lit fence and then immediately off the road and into the forest.
‘Dad says you could walk five hundred miles this way,’ she said, ‘and still not reach another road.’
All around them were ponds, and phosphorescent moss, and creatures moving under the dim mushroomy trees.
‘Where are we going?’ Peter asked again as he trotted behind her.
‘I don’t know yet,’ Cassie said. ‘But don’t keep asking me, eh?’
From a pond straight ahead of them, unicorns emerged, scrambling one by one out of the bright water to snuffle and flare their nostrils in the caramel air, before heading off in single file through the trees.
Peter began to count them.
‘One, two, three, four…’
‘Seventeen,’ Cassie told him shortly.
* * *
About twenty ponds later, they came to one where a single, very small, goblin sat at the bottom, lit by the pink phosphorescence of the pond’s floor. The creature was not much bigger than a large cat, and was quite motionless, staring straight ahead, apparently at nothing in particular.
Peter pulled at his sister’s hand, troubled by the presence of the goblin and wanting to move away. But Cassie resisted, making him wait until the little goblin glanced up, its black button eyes taking in the two of them looking down from the air above.
‘Mummy is going mad,’ said a calm cold voice inside Cassie’s head. ‘Daddy is a scaredy-cat, who hides away at work.’
‘Yes, sirree,’ she muttered with a grim chuckle. ‘You got that right, my friend’
Peter began to cry, and Cassie turned to him with a frown.
‘Go on then,’ she said, ‘Spit it out. What did it say to you?’
Her little brother just sobbed.
‘Well, whatever it said,’ she told him firmly, ‘you may and well face up to it, because it’s true. They don’t tell lies.’
Peter nodded humbly.
‘So go on then,’ Cassie persisted. ‘Tell me what it said.’
‘It said…’ snuffled Peter, ‘it said that Mum wishes I’d never been born.’
‘Oh that,’ Cassie snorted. ‘Is that all? I could have told you that. I’ve heard it often enough through my bedroom wall. She wishes she hadn’t had either of us. Spoiled her career apparently, and anyway she doesn’t like kids. Come here, you silly boy. Come to big sis. I love you don’t I?’
She pulled Peter close to her, putting her arm round his shoulder in a rough masculine way. Three baby water dragons appeared in the pond, supple as eels and slender as human fingers, and began to chase one another round and round the little goblin, which was once more staring straight ahead.
‘There you are, Peter,’ Cassie said, hugging her brother against her, and absent-mindedly patting him. ‘There there. That’s better isn’t it? You’ve got me to look after you, haven’t you? You’ve got your big sis. So you don’t need them, do you? You don’t need anyone else at all.’
Peter sniffed and nodded.
‘There’s all the food anyone could want out here, after all,’ Cassie told him, giving him a little encouraging shake. ‘We’ll be quite happy having fun out here all by ourselves. No Mum blubbing. No Dad whining.’
She thought for a moment, a little sadly, about Carmelo.
‘And no horrid school with settler kids,’ she added firmly, ‘who think killing things is fun.’
At the bottom of the pond, the goblin suddenly swum off, disappearing, in a single, frog-like stroke, into one of the water-filled tunnels under the trees.
‘Come on then, trouble,’ Cassie said to her brother. ‘Let’s get moving again, before someone notices we’ve gone.’
* * *
All that night, with pauses for food and rest, they wandered through the caramel forest, Cassie telling Peter stories to keep his spirits up, or providing him with improving pieces of information, or making up games for them to play together. Who could find the biggest tree pod? Who would spot the next dragon?
‘Why don’t you be Max the dog again, Peter,’ she suggested when he seemed to be flagging, ‘and then you can snuffle things out for us.’
Snuffling things out wasn’t exactly hard to do, with the show in full swing all around them.
‘Woof! Woof!’ said Max almost at once, spotting a gryphon fanning a pair of incandescent wings that crackled with electric charge.
‘Woof! Woof!’ he said again, as a white hart darted away from them, and plunged into the underground sea.
‘Woof! Woof!’ he shouted out, as an agency helicopter came thump-thump-thumping over the mushroom trees, probing down into the forest with long cold fingers of light.
‘Good boy Maxie,’ Cassie told her brother. ‘Good boy. Now quickly come and hide.’
* * *
Not long after the helicopter had passed over, dawn began to break. The phosphorescent glow faded from the moss and the ponds, the stage emptied, and the two children found themselves walking alone through ordinary sunlight that filtered down through the trees, as in pictures of Earth, that faraway world across the void, that place where leaves were green.
They lay down to sleep in deep soft moss.
* * *
When Cassie woke the sun was already setting. Beside her Peter still slept peacefully, sucking the edge of one finger, and for a while she just lay there watching the shadows of dreams rippling across his face and his eyes darting about under his closed lids.
During the quiet still hours of daylight, Cassie realised, creatures had come to watch her dreaming, just as she was watching Peter now. She’d had strange thoughts running through her sleeping mind, and a familiar voice in her head had been telling her that there was no faraway home, no great void of space, no ‘Earth’ or ‘Lutania’, only a single, small, whispering, seething thing, strange and familiar all at once.
From a nearby pond climbed a small winged quadruped, shaking its sparkling wings.
‘Come on Peter,’ Cassie called out gaily. ‘Wakey, wakey! It’s another lovely night.’
* * *
They were deeper into the forest that night, further away from Agency stations and settler villages alike, and they came across many goblins.
The creatures were sometimes on their own, often in twos and threes. They watched the children with their black button eyes and smiled their V-shaped smiles. One of them held out a white stone, another a piece of twig. One even showed them a small brown button from a settler’s jacket.
‘There is no space,’ said the voices in Cassie’s head, as the goblin’s eyes watched her. ‘There are no people. There is no such thing as far away.’
It seemed strange to her that she’d ever been persuaded to believe in an immensity of empty space beyond the caramel forest and its sky, for it seemed obvious now that everything that existed was as close as could be to everything else: close enough to whisper and rustle and murmur, close enough to touch…
She looked at the button. She nodded. She turned away.
Peter clutched her hand so tightly that it hurt.
* * *
Several more times they heard the thud-thud-thud of a helicopter passing over head, and saw the Agency searchlights sweeping officiously through the mushroom-like trees, leaching the colour from leaves and trunks.
The children just hid until they passed, surrounded by the whispering and rustling and murmuring of the caramel forest.
Cassie had no desire to be plucked up into the empty sky.
* * *
When dawn came again, they came to a castle beside a pool. It was very small, only about Peter’s height in fact, and looked at first like a little smooth stalagmite that had grown there, for some reason, beside the water. But one side of it was open, and they could see the intricate little chambers inside it, with their amber whirls and coils that enclosed even smaller chambers, and yet-tinier whorls…
When they tired of looking at it, the children gathered the spongy vegetation that grew around the castle and made themselves a secret nest nearby, well hidden from the sky. Then they found some savoury chicken fruit to have for their supper and a couple of toffee apples for afters.
‘Now wash your face and clean your teeth in the water, Peter,’ Cassie said when they’d finished. ‘And then let’s get you settled down.’
She stroked his head and told him a story, while the sun rose in the sky, turning as it climbed from a syrupy rosehip red to pale lemon.
‘I’ll look after you, my little bruv,’ she whispered to Peter’s already sleeping face. ‘I’ll always look after you.’
* * *
Three goblins arrived. One by one they caressed the little amber castle, and bent down to stare into its interior. Then they settled on their haunches on the bank of the pond, without even a glance at the two children.
‘Won’t find your way back now,’ said the voices in Cassie’s head.
‘Not if I can help it,’ muttered Cassie contentedly, stretching out in her improvised bed.
* * *
There was a gunshot, followed by human voices and barking dogs.
Peter lurched into wakefulness with a whimper.
One of the goblins dived into the pool.
Crack! A man ran to the bank and fired into the water.
‘Is alright now, darlings. We take you back to your Ma!’ growled another man’s voice, right next to the children in a thick Luto accent. ‘Goblins won’t scare you no more.’
Sitting up, Cassie and Peter clung together. The whispering and murmuring of the caramel forest was suddenly far away.
‘And maybe this time Agency go listen eh?’ grumbled a third man, helping Cassie and Peter to their feet. ‘Maybe this time they go understand why goblins is bad.’
The air was full of smoke. These weren’t pulse weapons that these men were carrying. They were proper old-fashioned guns, blasting out deadly balls of hot, hard matter.
Dogs came sniffling and snuffling, first round the children, and then, rather more interestedly, round some smooth greyish stuff that was strewn over the ground nearby.
Cassie gazed at it, uncomprehendingly.
‘Don’t worry about nothing,’ said the leader of the search party. (It was one of dozens spread out across the forest, linked by radio to the Agency helicopters overhead). ‘Is only crazy ideas these goblins put in your head. That’s all. Only crazy ideas. They’ll went away soon enough.’
He ruffled Peter’s hair kindly, and gave Cassie a friendly wink. She stared at him. The other men were breaking up the castle with their gun butts.
One of the dogs took an experimental mouthful of the grey stuff, then sneezed and spat it out. It was goblin flesh, smooth all the way through, like the flesh of mushrooms.
Copyright 2012, Chris Beckett