THE FOREST THAT WOULD NOT STAND STILL
For the summer vacation, Justin, the oldest of the Ravel family’s children, was sent by his parents to the countryside, at some friends’ residence. His little brothers reached, together, a seaside holiday camp, and soon their tutor wrote the parents that the little ones were having a great time. However, the investment exceeded the Ravels’ financial limits. That’s why Justin couldn’t follow the little ones’ path and soon saw himself put on a train, along with a backpack full of changing clothes and holding some sort of map his father drew for him. These were his instructions: he was to get off at a certain station, wait there for Mrs. Casetti, the landlord, or her driver who would show up in a white luxury car and take him to his destination. If nobody were there, Justin was to wait patiently for half and hour, and after that take off on this particular road – and here followed a hasty drawing of a country road with ramifications towards two villages, at which end, after a few twists, he was to find Mrs. Casetti’s residence. In less than three hours any kid could walk that road without a great deal of effort, even with the inherent stops along the way, for sightseeing. In the summertime the place was supposed to look enchanting; the large and green pastures, guarded here and there by groups of trees or by some tiny river bed were attracting both children and adults. The nature presented itself here as a reminder of a state of pure freedom which, undoubtedly, any man would be most comfortable with.
Justin was 12 years old. Between him and his brothers there was a difference of six and respectively seven years, a thing that didn’t bother him at all, as he found himself a hobby that very few boys his age could claim: taking care of his little brothers. Anywhere they were going together, he felt responsible for them. He was always watching them play with a keen eye, establishing the degree of risk that their games were bearing. He used to step in whenever he thought it was time, reminding his brothers about the game etiquette and their behavior. He quickly got to replace his parents, much too busy working to be able to spent time with the little ones. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why he didn’t reject the idea of going, over the summer, to spend time at the Casetti farm. The Casettis were decent older people, very wealthy and without kids of their own. They didn’t have relatives either; at least not relatives living close to them. His father told Justin that the old couple lived alone all their lives and that they seemed to welcome gladly this type of existence. Justin’s parents had met the couple some time ago, when Justin’s father had arranged some real estate business for old man Casetti, a nice and eccentric gentleman that ended up befriending Justin’s family and inviting them over to his property last year. They went to see it, and Justin was impressed by the scenery and the old people’s kindness. Now, as the train was rushing, Justin was happily contemplating the perspective of this solitary vacation at the residence of some people that could have easily been his grandparents and that seemed to exist just for that purpose: to raise and take care of grandkids, to tell them stories at night, by the fire and to take walks with them along the garden and the river bend in the evening, before bedtime. He was sure that right there, in the middle of the nature, surrounded by the old couple’s attention, he was going to feel like a child again.
After and hour and a half, the train brought Justin to a place from where the city civilization was absent. Little villages, spread around hills, herds of sheep and goats were indicating the presence of another world. Soon the boy got off in a small train station, with a narrow grey tower among two poplar trees that, compared to the little building, seemed to be extremely tall. He said hello to the train station chief and looked around for Mrs. Casetti’s white car, but the car wasn’t there. Justin didn’t feel bothered at all by this; he started walking towards a nearby bench and sat down, studying carefully the dusty country road crossed, at the time, by some geese forming an impressive straight line, in a perfect discipline that amused Justin. In the minutes that went by, the only vehicle on the road seemed to be a carriage full of hay driven by a villager inattentive to anything going on around him. But, in that, he was right: there was nothing going on in that particular place. Justin thought that it was very likely the Casettis owned the only car in the area and that it was probably not a bad idea to start walking in the direction indicated by his dad’s instructions. The logic was simple: he would gain time, and if anybody were going to drive over to the station looking for him, they would have found him walking down the same road.
He got off the bench and started walking but after not too many steps he spotted a cloud of dust in the horizon, while hearing the slight sound of an engine. Soon he saw the Casetti’s car driving towards him, with only one person abroad: the driver. He was ten minutes late. The driver stopped the car, got off and grated Justin with a nod of his head after which he picked up the boy’s backpack and put in the trunk. He invited Justin to climb inside and closed the door behind him. Once he got behind the wheel, he turned the key, and the engine started to purr.
-How do you like the area? the driver asked Justin without turning his head, noticing in the rear view mirror the curiosity with which the boy was glancing at the pasture and the hills on the side of the road.
-It’s beautiful! Justin replied, sticking his nose to the door’s cold window. I’ve been here before, last fall, but right now everything seems even more beautiful.
-Of course, the driver said, spring and summer are the best seasons in this countryside. The lawns and pastures occupy a great deal of the land, and they are usually more enchanting when covered in green.
-What about the lake? asked Justin. He remembered hearing about a lake in the area. He didn’t get to go there the last time, but he remembered old man Casetti telling him about it.
-The lake? It’s on the other side of the forest. We’re actually driving in the opposite direction. One day, however, provided that Mrs. Casetti will agree, we’ll take the car and drive there. In less than an hour we’ll be on the lake.
-Can’t I just walk? I’d like to visit the area anyway, maybe even starting tomorrow! Justin revealed his plan. The driver shrugged.
-I don’t know. The straight way would only be through the forest, but the forest…
The driver didn’t finish his phrase, just shrugged one more time. Justin really wanted to ask him what’s wrong with the straight way through the forest, but he changed his mind, as the driver seemed rather preoccupied to avoid a herd of sheep that were just crossing the road, led by a young shepherd. They spent the rest of the road almost in silence. Justin was too busy taking in the sights. Along the road, there was certainly no forest. Even more, after a curve it seemed that the grain fields were thinning and the plain fields were kicking in. Here and there, grains of wheat were raising from the land, upward and proud, almost in the spite of their little sisters, the grains of oat, with tiny stems, almost mistakable for plain grass. Then there were uncultivated fields, the grounds the shepherds or cow-raisers were bringing their animals to feed them. Soon after that, these fields ended and the car drove by a fence marking a swiftly cut terrain, like a golf course, stretching for hundreds of acres. This fence was separating the Casettis’ farm from the rest of the fields. The main entrance to the farm was also through a little wooden gate, wide open, that the driver closed after getting off the car for a minute, without turning the engine off. The drive still went on a little longer, but not too long, until the driver and Justin found themselves in front of a two-story villa, guarded at the entrance by an artesian fountain from which the water sprung lively, in a thin jet, curved along little marble trenches that formed a labyrinth. The fountain was placed in the middle of a park with lots of different flowers creating an extraordinary game of colors.
Hearing the sound of the engine, Mr. and Mrs. Casetti came out on the doorsteps. They embraced little Justin and told the driver to take his luggage inside. The boy was already happy: he was around some quiet gentle people that, without even knowing him too well, were putting at his disposal their house and their entire farm without asking for anything in return. He could play freely, he could be a child again, he could feel unique. His hands could touch all the beautiful forms of the surrounding nature without restraint. A forgotten, unexpected childhood was being offered to him on a golden plate, in its ideal sense: the breakaway from rigors and responsibilities, the freedom to discover the world at the moments of its blossoming. There was nothing more that Justin could have wanted. Ever.
However, the next day, when he intended to leave by himself in the attempt to explore the area, Justin was stopped by Mr. Casetti who expressed his desire to accompany him. They walked slowly, for about an hour, along a part of the fence that was surrounding the farm, after which the old man asked him to go back. He was getting tired. Even though Justin felt full of energy, ready for ten times that walk, he agreed without argument. He knew it would have been impolite of him to leave the old man alone. And he repeated to himself that there were enough days left in which he could visit the region and get to know it by heart. Once they arrived home, Justin took a book from the library and sank into lecture.
But even in the following days he had to accept, for the longer walks, the walks that weren’t taken in the immediate vicinity of the house, the presence of the two old people. Either Mrs. Casetti or the old man were coming along, talking casual stuff. Justin hadn’t yet found the right moment to ask them to stop accompanying him, especially since he didn’t want to upset them, but he could feel that the closeness that was growing among them made that moment come closer day by day. He couldn’t even imagine he wouldn’t found the proper way to tell them he needed to be alone. Him and the old couple were getting closer and closer and he could easily notice what they were feeling for him was genuine affection. Undoubtedly they weren’t going to oppose his plan to visit the entire region, leaving the house on one morning and coming back at nightfall.
Soon, he told them his plan. One evening, at the dinner table, after thanking them for the meal, he started talking about his passion for geography and about his intention to find out more about the area they were living in. He told them he wanted to leave towards the lake, early in the morning, surround it, and come back by evening time, after he’d have learned everything about the area. The old people stared at one another for a few seconds, then Mr. Casetti started talking.
-Justin – he said – I understand your wish. It’s only natural for you to want to visit the surroundings, all the more when this land is so beautiful and with so many sights. But it’s not possible. I’m not saying you have to stay indoors, God forbid, or that we don’t trust you. I also don’t like to forbid things; I even dislike the people that forbid good things, things that make other people happy. But walking around here is not a good thing. And I will not encourage it mainly because of the forest that is placed about two miles north of our farm. It’s what may seem an idyllic little place; a rather small forest, with trees not too abundant, not too tall either, and not at all frightening. It mostly looks like a clearing, where sun and shadows play at will, overcoming each other at various times in the day. It’s just that this forest is the most harmful, treacherous place around here.
Justin felt a shiver. He almost forgot to breathe, all eyes and ears at the old man’s story.
-You shouldn’t trust what you’re seeing. This is not like any forest you know; it’s a strange place, with trees that say green, untouched by snow in the wintertime, filled with green, silky grass that never seems to dry up. We, the people around here, believe that the forest is curse and that deep within it hides a labyrinth with no exit. The legend says that once you’ve bypassed its first tree, the forest has already got a hold of you. To most of us, around here, this legend became the truth, as the forest has taken someone dear from us. Nobody know exactly how this happens, but we all know one thing: whoever dares to cross the forest line stays its prisoner forever. None of the people that ever entered this green nightmare ever made it out. Neither are the people that follow in their footsteps, trying to find them. Sometimes, at the end of the past century, there was a great fuss around here. Important people had adventured into the forest and disappeared, and for this the government sent here some well-trained police agents. These agents, after losing one of their colleagues, careless enough to misplace his steps through the tall herbs growing near the edge of the forest, have imagined a strategy to go in. They rolled some big logs on the side, at three different points, and chained themselves with big strong ropes to these logs. Then, they entered the forest each from his point, establishing a meeting place somewhere where they supposed it should be the middle of the forest. Until late that day, the ropes that chained them to the logs were extended sharply, and for a long time the villagers thought the three agents weren’t too far, doing their research. However, around evening when the villagers started pulling on the ropes, urging the agents to step outside, they realized that, at the other end, the resistance was far greater than any man could pose. And nobody came out. The villagers feared now that, at the other end of the ropes, there was something else; maybe trees, maybe stones, maybe the spirit of the forest itself. They cut down the ropes and resigned at the thought that they will never know what forces lie inside the forest. Some of them avoided to talk about it, but some said…
Here, Mr. Casetti stopped to drink a bit of water. Justin was now waiting, impatiently, for him to resume the story. Except he was already feeling uncomfortable.
-Some of them said there was no way the ropes were unchained from around the people and later on chained to something else, because while they were pulling on them, they felt something moving at the other end. Except it was something strong, very strong. People were ready to swear that, if the logs weren’t thick enough and if there hadn’t been more of them, working together, they could have been pulled into the forest themselves. A scholar of those times even advanced the theory that the forest keeps moving round, generating a rotation force, like an object without adherence. Like it’s lacking gravity – and we know this is impossible. But every other logical explanation seemed also to fail – and this is the reason why we decided to stop anyone from trying to get into that area. Long ago, the place was surrounded with warning signs and fences but, as time went by, most of them fell off. It’s very easy nowadays to get lost in the woods. But the thing is – and I don’t know whether it’s good or not – there aren’t too many visitors around here. The people avoid the area regardless, and the visitors are usually being warned and most of them, even though they look like they don’t believe our stories, don’t want to take a chance. I hope the things stay at least that way forever – the old man said, extending his dry arm, covered through by thin, blue veins, in order to fondle the boy’s hand.
Justin was now looking silently at the wood of the table. He excused himself and then he left for his room. From his room he could hear the two elders arguing, and, during their quarrel, he overheard a name: Nando, repeated several times. Soon Justin realized that Nando was the couple’s son, lost in the woods long time ago. It seemed that, one day, his parents reproved him for some bad behavior and he became angry and started wandering through the woods, oblivious to the horrible things that were being said about it. Only now could Justin understand the solitude and sobriety in which the old couple were living, and felt sorry for them. He fell asleep making a promise to himself that he was never going to disregard old man Casetti’s request to stay away from the forest. He wasn’t ever going to give the old people a reason to be mad at him.
The thought of the forest, however, didn’t leave him. He started more and more to try and find a way to uncover the forest’s mystery without getting himself in danger. The idea of a rope chained to a tree, outside of the forest, was obviously not a good one, as it required him to step inside the forest. Unacceptable! Then he started thinking about throwing a paint balloon at one of the trees, thus coloring it and establishing its position. Later, he was to stop by as many times as needed around that area to see if the tree was still there. If it were, at least the myth about the rotation of the forest would have been out of the question. Soon he gave up that idea as well, as the paint balloon could just as well missed its target, or Justin could have, somehow, fell inside the forest while trying to pitch it properly. Finally, he grew fond of another idea: to color a rock, throw it into the woods, mark the place where he was standing and come back the next day to check if the stone was still there.
One morning, after breakfast and after promising the old couple that he wouldn’t stray too much, he slipped in his pocked a stone that he had colored the previous day with watercolors in a lively yellow crossed through by a thick red line and rushed to the forest’s edge. He saw it from the far; after the Casetti’s fence he didn’t have to walk more that a few hundred yards to the compact group of trees that you could almost encompass with one eyeful. The area wasn’t wider than a mile and a half, and the sunlight and the drops of morning mist were making it look very friendly and casual, not at all different from all the other sights around it. Justin didn’t want to get too close to it; and as soon as he was twenty yards away from the forest, he stopped. He had found himself in front of a place that he’d heard the most frightening things about, and he didn’t feel comfortable at all, even with the happy chirping of the birds nearby. There’s no doubt, Justin thought, that these birds that are so happily chirping right now are standing in the trees in front of him; yet they sing like nothing bad can happen to them, and they most likely come and go as they please in and out of the forest.
Thinking about the birds brought up some relief to Justin. He told himself there’s also a great chance that old man Casetti was exaggerating things. However, there was also the thought about the old couple’s lost son, and this was enough to make him keep the distance from the forest. He just got close enough to throw the rock He pulled it out of his pocket and threw it in among the trees, following its landing, somewhere beyond the closest tree. Then he sat down, watching the rock standing there, until he got bored. Nothing was happening. No process, no movement. The rock was standing there, immobile as ever. It seems that it was almost defying him, standing there, under the sunlight, shining its white glare. – Hold on! Justin trembled, staring at the rock. White? Was it a white glare? he squinted, trying to avoid the sunlight by placing his hand above his eyebrows. Yes, the rock became white again, just like in the precedent day, when he picked it up from the river’s edge and went to paint it yellow and red. It was white. But it also seemed to be smaller. It looked precisely like the stone he’d thrown, except it was white. And smaller. Well, this could be an illusion provoked by the sun rays, but it could as well be another rock. Except it couldn’t! – for Justin had been there the whole time, not letting it out of his sight. Nothing had changed around it, not even a leaf fell off, it’s just that the rock had changed its color and size. Justin decided to change his position. He couldn’t tell whether it was the sunlight or the very space where the rock landed, but coming a little closer he could see an interesting phenomenon; all around the rock, there was this little veil of fine, shiny white sand that seemed to bring a strange aura to it. Justin sat down, staring at the rock’s position, decided to stay focused as long as it took to understand what was going on. Soon, however, he had to rise, this time scared straight. Under his very eyes the rock was disintegrating, and where it used to stand there was now only a little pile of sand whose tiny pieces were hiding, slowly, among the blades of grass, sticking to the black soil and becoming one with it. In not more than half an hour since he threw the stone, not only it did not change its place, but it stood there until its transformation to dust. Until its auto-destruction.
The boy could now understand, thinking about what he had seen, that the forest wasn’t falling under the curse of eternal movement, but under the spell of time. The time seemed to pass inside the forest much faster than outside of it. Justin had read enough to understand the phenomenon, maybe even do a little bit of math around it. In the normal world, a little rock, like the one he’d just used, needs maybe two or three hundred years to become sand. Inside the forest, it only took half an hour. That would mean that a ordinary human being would take about five minutes or less to get old and die. Maybe twenty years a minute, estimated Justin, taking a few steps back. This forest lying before him in which the time went nuts, changing its entire process, was now even more frightening. But there were still questions. How come the trees didn’t suffer from it? Why was the grass always green? Why did birds go on singing on the treetops? And, finally, why did people that entered the forest, feeling how the tiredness got into their bones and how the burden of years conquers them not rush to step outside of it? Obviously the forest wasn’t running anywhere and it didn’t seem to be such a problem to step out of it. A step here, another one there, and you’re out. What could Nando, the old people’s son, think about when he stepped inside? Justin couldn’t imagine that that boy, who was just about his age when he got lost, didn’t first explore everything and didn’t understand how things were working. Of course he did, of course he knew, and of course he couldn’t have wanted to punish his parents so much for their criticism. He couldn’t have wanted to step in there and lose them forever. There was something else here, but what?
Justin thought and thought until the felt tired and realized that the afternoon was long gone. He had to get back immediately, before the old couple would have started to get worried and search for him. But the enigma of the forest needed to be judged more than by theories and hypothesis. A practical check was needed, an active experience. Justin didn’t want to step into the forest but, to make this experiment, he had to sacrifice something. After a few minutes of decision, he made up his mind. He was going to extend his left arm beyond the first tree. What could happen, after all? The skin of his arm was clearly going to wrinkle, maybe he would see some hair growing out of it, like adults have, but, undoubtedly the rest was going to remain intact. And maybe there weren’t going to be that many signs of aging, because Justin didn’t intend to hold his arm up for more than a minute, as long as it took for the change to become visible.
He rolled up his sleeve, lied down on his belly and extended his hand along the tree, closing his eyes. He waited a little. He didn’t know exactly what he was waiting for, but after a whole minute nothing happened. That was weird! Dissatisfied, Justin started pulling back his hand and then he felt, on the back of his arm, a silky, smooth touch. It couldn’t have been the wind; it felt like a piece of leather or another hand, a very soft hand coming out of nowhere. Justin jumped up, barely keeping himself from screaming, and looked around. There was nobody around him. Studying his arm didn’t bring up anything new or unusual. Same arm, his arm, and same left hand that he knew very well. But what in the world had touched him? What kind of touch was that, was it like a message or something else? Who was trying to tell him something?
He turned around and started walking towards the Casetti farm. But after a few minutes, he stopped. The curiosity was overwhelming; he had to know, to understand what went on. It wasn’t just his arm that he needed to extend across the edge of the forest, it was his whole body; he needed to see with his own eyes what was going on over there, in that strange reality where whatever touched him was hiding so well. He was going to spend in there not more than ten, maybe twenty seconds. That’s it. Not many things could happen in twenty seconds, but it was enough for him to see what was on the other side. He walked back, stopped at the edge, breathed deeply and, mumbling a prayer, stepped over the thin layer of dirt that was separating the forest from the rest of the world.
Once on the other side, Justin looked around with great attention. He saw the same trees that he had observed from outside, the same clearing from where the sun was slowly retiring now, hidden by the evening clouds, the same reflexes of light in the distant waters of the lake and somewhere, far back, the top of the green hill where the Casettis’ fence was starting. Nothing extraordinary, nothing unusual, nothing that didn’t belong there. And not a human being, not a soul that could have started that light silky touch that had impressed little Justin so much. It was without doubt now that, once he bypassed the forest edge, the old fear started by legend and by his own illusions was ungrounded. Yet he didn’t want to risk too much and stay inside the forest for too long. After taking one more look around, Justin jumped back, outside the forest line. And there was nothing, no force, no obstacle to keep him in.
He rushed towards the Casetti farm whistling. He had uncovered the mystery of the forest, or at least a part of it, the most important part. It was about time, not about movement. A plain, clear mathematics established, at first sight, that here the physical time was evolving differently. And this thing was, so far, impossible everywhere else on earth, except inside that odd group of trees, so peacefully lighted and so thought provoking. The key was time, and time…
Time is just a strange phenomenon. We don’t see it, but we surely feel it, thought Justin. Any time past a certain hour, we feel tired and sleepy. Any time past a certain number of months we know it’s vacation time. Any time past a certain age, and we feel more mature and more knowledgeable. Then how come right there, inside the forest, he didn’t feel himself aging? And how come he feels nothing has changed and how come right now, looking in the river’s mirror, he looks exactly the same? According to his calculations he should have been one or two years older. But nothing happened, no aging, no tiredness. Wow, what a useless fear!
Justin smiled. He walked away from the river that was reflecting his young and healthy image, rushing to the Casetti farm, when he saw a boy about his age smiling at him. The boy was sitting down by the river’s edge, playing with a stick. Justin didn’t know him, hadn’t seen him before, but felt happy that he had finally found someone his age that he could spend some time with.
-Hi there, Justin said.
-Hello, the boy answered, getting up from his shelter.
-My name is Justin, said Justin, extending his hand to the stranger.
-Glad to meet you, the boy answered. So, you’re the guy that came to visit my folks? Tell me, how do you like it around here?
Justin could not decide what was more surprising: the stranger’s odd question or the touch of his hand, an extremely soft and delicate touch that Justin had the feeling he knew all along. But the feelings, as we all know, can often play tricks on us, so we shouldn’t jump to any conclusions. As a matter of fact, little Justin didn’t even have time to try and answer his questions, when the other boy started walking away, calling him along. It was playing time. Justin rushed to reach him, curious as ever, thinking about all the things that he wanted to find out. He almost bypassed, in his haste, another interesting scene. Not too far, a conversation was taking place. Three guys dressed in some ridiculous clothing were engaged in an argument. For some reason, all of them were wearing ropes around their waist.