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An encounter in the woods

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  1. II Bretton Woods, 1944


It was already deep into autumn.

A cold wind sighed in the old oak forest, where the giant trees stretched their bare branches aloft, imploring the leaden sky to let at least a little light through. Their trunks – a good two fathoms around – were swathed in golden velvet hats, a last gift left by the falling leaves; close by, juniper and rowan bushes huddled together, dusted in white by the night's frost.

The far side of the woodland fringe rang with the deep hoot of an owl that had woken in the small hours of the morning; the resonant call swelled, stalled for an instant, and then broke asunder in the air, plunging the woods back into silence, only for a languid, sonorous echo to flow anew from the depths of the forest.

Squanto was sitting on a soft cushion of leaves, carving chess pieces. His work was going well. The block of alder wood was melting away under the blade of his razor-sharp chisel; with each shaving, the wood looked more and more like an armour-clad knight. At moments like these, Squanto was happy. He had only to pick up his tools for all the awful things that tormented him endlessly through the long evenings to be instantly banished.

In the forest, his thoughts were kinder. In the forest, they ran like a burbling stream flowing peacefully through the foot of a meadow, bypassing the shoals of his distressing recollections.

Squanto had often pictured to himself how happy the children would be with a set of hand-carved chess pieces and a wide, checkered, linden-wood board to go with them. In order to have it finished by winter, Squanto would get up while it was still dark, and arrive at the forest edge before dawn had yet broken.

The chessmen were pleasing to the eye: lacquered Indian Kshatriya warriors on Arabian stallions, the vigilant guards of the Vaishyas in their sturdy redoubts or on their war elephants, the strategists of the royal-blooded Brahmins. In front were positioned the Shudra – spearmen whose ranks were drawn from the common people.

At first, hardly recovered from his flight from Leviathan, Squanto would roam through the garden, keeping out of sight, or vanish for days on end inside the library reading room, tirelessly turning the pages in the folios. However, he rapidly grew disillusioned. The books held the knowledge of the Ancients, yet had nothing to say about life outside the City. Confusion and strife reigned within him.

One day, he had mustered his courage and asked his Tutor to tell him the secret of the Scriptors. But the Tutor had simply shaken his head in reply: "Now is not yet the time. Be patient, and the truth itself will come knocking at your door."

Squanto was patient – he had a good memory. How could he forget the day when, wracked by hunger and thirst, shattered by the adversities he had encountered on his journey, he lay dying beneath the scorching rays of the sun?

He had prayed, then, for a quick death, but the Scriptors had found him and taken him in. They had cleansed his wounds, given him board and lodging, clad him in fresh clothes... When he spoke to them, they were kind and courteous; when he was in need, they were civil and attentive. He couldn’t help but feel grateful towards them, they had saved him.

Yet, at the same time, Squanto had the sense that they were avoiding him. This reserve of the Scriptors depressed him. At times, Squanto felt like a lost, shipwrecked sailor who, through some irony of fate, had been washed up on a deserted island.

Every morning he awoke with one and the same thought in his mind – why had he been saved? Was he some kind of experiment? Maybe he was some highly curious specimen for the celestial beings around here, some sort of sentient guinea pig for them to observe in real time.

Or might his salvation have come about in the name of doing the right thing? They had rescued him simply because they could not have done otherwise. And now that he was of no use at all to them, they condescended to let him stay since, alone, he was doomed.

"What can you do? That's all fair enough," thought Squanto. "Never mind the fact I'm different, they're still going to a lot of trouble for me! At the end of the day, what am I to them? Just a new arrival from the land of the living dead."





Squanto carved all his chessmen on the top of a large, mossy tree stump. He had somehow taken an immediate fancy to the glade here, and his work went smoothly and happily. A colony of ants had set up home in the root system of the rotten stump. It was an unalloyed pleasure to watch them. Plus, there was plenty going on in the remote forest.

The big red ants hurried along the pathways from the nearest oak tree to their nest in a businesslike manner, dragging home twigs, straws, and other building materials. Now and again, a brigade of the colonisers would fall upon some centipede or prowling stag beetle and a desperate battle would ensue, ending, more often than not, with the tiny tribe claiming victory and marching triumphantly into their entomological Capitol.

Squanto usually watched scenes like this play out with interest. Sometimes he would make bets with himself: would the victim manage to get away in time from the red hunters or was it destined to end up as a meal somewhere in those sinuous passages underground? Deep in his soul, for some reason, he backed the ants.

But today, everything seemed freakishly surreal, like the floating images in a holographic picture. The well-organised and ostensibly measured life of the fragile ant colony reminded him of the City.

There was something horrible and scarily repulsive in this mindless push and shove of beings, all for the general good of the system. He had visions of Leviathan – that immense beehive in which millions of indistinguishable golems scurried about in the exact same bustle, in which one's entire lifetime was supposed to be devoted to constructing this colossus which stood on feet of clay, and in which people were held in the shackles of hopeless bondage from cradle to grave.

A singularity... Once upon a time, he, too, had been its captive.

Squanto raised his eyes up to the heavens and a sudden chill ran up his spine; the shade of the Golem had slipped silently out of the undergrowth, flitting unremarked up his trouser leg, crawling quickly ever upward and sinking its sharp fangs into his soul. The fear which overpowered him for very different reasons had tempted it out of the City, and lo! It had breached Leviathan's walls, finding its way across the bridge and over the marsh paths to reach the forest. Today its corporeal form was that of the Serpent, the Tempter.

Intoxicated by Squanto’s alarm and doubts, it pasted a blinding white smile onto the skin stretched tight over its skull, allowing its hypnotic stare to stupefy him. He guessed its poisonous and familiar words by reading its thin, kindred lips:


"Do you fear rejection? Your feelings are not deceiving you, Beverly, you are a stranger among them. An outcast in the City, yet a hermit here. Oh, this is all so sad!" it whispered.

Squanto carried on whittling the soft wood in silence. He knew it was pointless to argue with the shade; better to wait until it vanished of its own accord. However, the shade had no intention of leaving. It was basking in his misfortune.

"I know, I know," it announced in its whistling tone, thin yet penetrating, "you're flirting with the notion of getting closer to the adults via their slow-witted kiddies. Of worming yourself into the little ones' trust, so that the grown-ups take you for one of their own. What can I say? That's commendable, I never expected such sharp thinking from you. But what if your plan doesn't work? What then, hmm? Will you flee from them, too, just as you once slunk off in disgrace from the City where people like you live?"

"I've no desire to listen to you, you vile monster! Be off!" cried Squanto. The spectre flickered and slowly dissolved into the air.

Gritting his teeth, Squanto carried on with his work. That was the only thing which could help at moments like these. And, sure enough, it wasn’t long before he started feeling better.



It was growing dark. The evening was setting in with a violet tinge; an icy north wind created uneasy sounds in the forest, rustling the faded leaves covering the ground.

"Well, that's all for today," said Squanto, thoughtfully. He stashed his tools and his work pieces into a sack, slung it over his shoulder, and stepped out along the bare path.

"Maybe the shade was right, after all," he thought, "I'm like a weed, getting under everyone's feet. Maybe I should go back to the city?" But just thinking about the prospect made him shiver like a bucket of cold water had been poured down his shirt collar. The pedantic, nasal voice of the DES[1] and Manfred's porcine snout sprang vividly to his mind, demanding that he reverse the slump in sales. Could the System really need him? The System didn't need Squanto so much as it did a functional statistical unit, minimally beset by existential doubts and suchlike metaphysical nonsense.

He stopped to catch his breath a while, and looked around. He could not recall ever being in this particular spot before. The unfamiliar landscape, a sad rustle in the sleepy greenery, and a pair of wickedly glinting eyes following his uncertain progress; everything here gave off a sense of faceless hostility.

He noticed that the trees had grown smaller and more compact, that the spacious oak forest had given way to conifers. The ground, which had been of firm clay, now gave treacherously beneath his feet. “That's strange,” he said aloud, “I seem to remember there was a junction here...” At this point, he realised that he had lost his way.

He decided to go back and find a spot he knew, where a post covered in brown speckles split the path in two. But the path writhed like a restless vixen and led Squanto deeper still into the forest. Gloom enveloped him on all sides. The spreading pines moved closer and brushed the shock of hair on his head with limbs that were at once both hand and branch.

He glimpsed a shadow flickering off to one side, and heard a soft, scarcely audible, footstep. He was no longer alone. He speeded up. The path was wearing thin, thistle and wormwood encroaching upon it. Soon after, there was no more than a furrow winding its lonely way through the bowed stems of the weedy grass, and then that, too, disappeared. Squanto, who had been steadily following the traces of previous passers-by, sighed heavily.

Suddenly, from somewhere up ahead, there came the snap of a broken branch. Squanto squinted, and froze: directly before him, under the dull disc of the full moon, there stood a snow-white wolf. The beast was crouching, ready to spring. It looked askance at him for some time, then, suddenly, it backed away and vanished into the darkness, for all the world as though it had changed its mind.

"That's a bad state of affairs," thought Squanto, "wolves hardly ever hunt alone." Having no desire to become easy prey, he found a hefty branch in the grass, and lifting it high overhead, brought the end arcing down in a semi-circle to hit the ground. The branch proved strong, and survived the blow.

The pale, pock-marked moon again peeped through a rent in the clouds and shone its miserly light around. The darkness reluctantly shrank back, drawing its borders back behind the forest fringe. Somewhere far up ahead, he could see campfires burning. Squanto drew heart, and quickly set out to meet the light. "If I can just reach some other people!" he whispered, in hope.

But it was not to be. Patches of white, the fearsome silhouettes of wild beasts, were already looming all around. He could clearly hear the wolves clashing their fangs together and scraping their claws over the frozen ground. A shiver ran down his spine, and his right hand curled tighter round his club. With his left, Squanto felt within his side pocket for his sharpened chisel.

But the wolves were in no rush to attack. They were skulking along at his heels, evidently waiting for a more suitable moment to make the final lunge. The long-sought fires were close, now! He plunged through bushes and thistles towards the light, and...

Disappointment. Just a mossy, boggy surface, over which a myriad tiny flickers hovered: a shroud of fireflies. It was the edge of a marsh.

"Well, that's that," the words flitted through his mind, "I wonder how many of these creatures I'll manage to do away with before they see me off..."


"Don't be afraid," the voice of a child sounded behind him. He gave a start, and turned sharply around. Behind him, surrounded by the whole wolf pack, stood a little red-headed girl. By the looks of her, she could have been no more than eight years old. She had deep-set eyes, an intelligent open demeanour. She was like an exquisitely carved statuette. Golden strands gently caressed her thin shoulders. She smiled and, as though feeling the chill, wrapped her burgundy shawl tighter around herself. A defenceless child, and yet there was something elusive and grown-up about her, too.

The largest of the beasts, obviously the pack leader, was lying peaceably at her feet and grinning with pleasure every time the girl tickled him agreeably behind the ear. "Do you see? They're not bloodthirsty at all," she said.

Squanto came closer. The pack leader raised his head to look uneasily at his mistress, but seeing that she was being friendly towards the stranger, grew instantly calm. "How did you find me?" asked Squanto, angrily – he was a little annoyed that he had been afraid.

"Well, I noticed you back on the mound, there. You were making something, and then you set off, with your mind clearly not on where you were going. That's when I thought that you were bound to lose your way, so I set off after you."

"What about the wolves, though? Aren't they hungry?"

The girl stifled a laugh, clumsily covering her mouth with the back of her hand in a gesture that was somehow childish. "I know you, you're the one who fled from inside that giant egg. And you've got a name like an American Indian." At this, she did burst out in infectious laughter.

"Well, that's true," chuckled Squanto. But it wasn't funny at all to him. He suddenly noticed her unusual way of speaking: she was pronouncing her words slowly, and with pauses, as though saying them for the first time.

The girl, noting the agitation on his face, dropped her gaze and returned to the activity she had broken off from: scratching the wolf's ear. Judging by her look of concentration, Squanto reckoned that she was carefully thinking something over.

"It's no good being like that with them," she said, at last (and her speech had noticeably improved), "They only wanted to see you home safe, but you, look at you, you snatched hold of a big stick straight away."

"It’s just, you see, I didn't have any idea what sort of animals they were," smiled Squanto. Then he asked, "Since you know who I am, maybe you'll tell me who you are?"

"I am Miranda, Johann's daughter," the girl replied.

"Does your father let you wander about the forest by yourself?" asked Squanto in surprise, and broke off straight away when he saw the girl wince and screw up her eyes.

"I have no father," she said softly, "I live with my sister." She was quiet for a moment, and then added: "Maybe I'll see you back after all." Miranda stepped up to him and took his hand. "Come on, I know a quick way home." Squanto complied. For a short while, they walked hand in hand, in silence. The wolves ran ahead a little way, their tongues lolling out.


Soon the trees gave way to a hillock covered in well-tended meadows and a scattering of neat cottages. A silvery smooth river ran round its edge. The heavens were studded with stars like a sea of tiny diamonds, and the full moon was reflecting off gentle ripples in the night-time water, outlining the river banks and bends.

The wolves accompanied them to the forest fringe, but would go no further. "I need to climb the hill," said Squanto, "Will you come with me?"

Miranda shook her head. "I've got to go. My sister has probably already started looking for me. But you should come and visit us. It's a stone's throw from where you live to our house. Ours is the third one, counting from the lake." And with that she headed back along the path.

Squanto went up the hill, and took a long look back into the hollow. There, looming over the dim, smoky edge of the woodland, was Leviathan, its shape bringing to mind a monstrously large egg, incommensurable with the reality surrounding it. The Delphic Omphalos. A thing unto itself.


[1] DES – Domestic Electronic System

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