The Genius of the Fog
The boy called softly, to see if anything would call back. His voice did not penetrate the fog at all.
The fog turned the familiar trees into strangers, dark-hooded and cloaked. It glowed yellow, as though backlit, but there was no light source. It lit the darkness by itself, like the inside of an electric bulb.
He belonged to this place, this silence. All alone, Bill walked into the fog.
The moment his foot sank in the undergrowth, he knew he did not know this place. These were the same trees, growing in the same places, but they were asleep, and the earth around them smelled like autumn, though it was the middle of summer. He wanted to leave. He kept walking.
He passed through a particularly thick patch of fog, and it whispered around his ears like wind, and he thought he heard words coming out of the gold essence of the particles themselves--if the fog was made of particles, if it could be called fog at all, if this was not a dream, and he would not wake up and go to school any second.
He walked faster.
Now the ground began to rise, and there were places where the dank grass rose in stairs, with roots running through them to give them shape. As though he were in someone’s house. Now the trees grew thicker, and the fog thickened with them, and he actually began to smell it. He could not identify the scent. It smelled the way Saturn looked.
There were bugs in this fog, swarming in silent groups here and there, swooping from tree to tree, and he reached out suddenly and took hold of one. It wriggled in his hands. Looking at it, he knew this must be a dream.
It was a beetle. The shell was black, but the the light made shifting auroras of pink and green against it. The antennae were fans. From the ends of them, dewdrops dangled and refracted the ground below. He opened his fingers, and the shells lifted, and the beetle flew away. He kept walking.
Soon a shape appeared in gloom. He thought it must be a broken tree, but it was far thicker than any of the poplars. It stood only about five feet high, and as he approached he was able to refine the shape down to a high-armed chair. Someone was sitting in it.
The head was turned toward him. He nearly ran away.
From bottom to top, the throne was sculpted from golden glass, and into its surface were intaglios and bas-reliefs of scenes that he somehow knew, but could not recognize. There were lonely roads and cattails, moss dangling from trees, ships with bodies hanging from their spars, only just visible in the carven fog. Beasts that many feared and legend had not named strove with men in indistinct cloaks.
Coming closer, he saw the other designs that framed these, lines of poetry in 45 languages, some dead, some never spoken, lovers waiting alone in the night, all the romances of unknown worlds in their foggy eyes.
The one who sat in the chair was made of colors, swirling in and out of one another, like some exotic metallic melt in human form. Then it nodded, and the beetles rose in a whirring cloud and flew away into the fog, leaving a white figure.
It sat under a tall crown, whose gems gleamed with yellow light, reflected from an unseen source. His beard was a mist that ran down his chest in a white river, filling the air, and it glowed with the color of the golden gems. The eyes were bright black. They were not surprised to see him.
Bill stood still, though part of him felt the urge to bow. He struggled to meet the figure’s eyes as he waited a thousand years for it to speak.
“Would you like some water?”
The webby lips did not quite match the sentence, as though the words were running late.
He licked his lips. “No, thank-you. I’m not thirsty.”
He might have been parched, for all he knew. The response was automatic. Hunger and thirst were part of a different realm than this.
The man sitting above him stared, maybe at him, maybe at everything else. Something about the eyes made it hard to know. “We have been waiting for you to come. Now that you are here, please sit down. Just there.”
There was nothing but a little hummock of grass. He sat down cross-legged. His legs were stiff, as though he had been running.
There were questions, but he could not think of them. He cleared his throat, and the figure on the throne gestured for him to proceed.
“What are you? Why does the yellow fog come here so many times? Why is it glowing?”
“Stories.” The figure leaned back. “The stories here are fine. My little messengers bring me the tales that haunt these woods. There must have been great deeds done here. The insects of this place, the birds in the boles of trees, the very mosses in the riven trunks, have told my beetles of great pursuits and slavering beasts, of warriors hunting among wolves, of wild men stalking beneath the moon. Swords have been drawn here, great songs made, vast caverns mined of tourmaline, all in this forest. Tales of such things are fine to hear. I often sojourn in places such as this, in my lingerings on land and sea.”
The boy looked around him. “When was all this? I never heard about any of it.”
“Perhaps recently, perhaps aeons since. Tales passed along in the shaking of a grasshopper’s leg, the whistling of a breeze through a forked branch. I cannot know the times. I have no books, and there are no mandarins to give me kingly learning, except for these little messengers of mine. But I must have stories. Do you have any?”
Bill shifted uncomfortably. “I’m sorry, I haven’t brought any with me. My Dad tells me stories, but I can’t seem to remember any right now.”
The head lowered. “You must have brought me something.”
The sound of beetles’ wings was now audible for the first time, a low hum that moved through the forest like waves in the sea. The mood of menace increased.
Bill shrugged. “It’s not much, but...” He took a leftover piece of grilled cheese sandwich out of his pocket. It was dented all around the corners, cold and gray with lint. He showed the morsel to the figure on the throne and put it on the ground at his feet. The color of the crown and the fog flickered. The sound of beetles came again.
He could not see them individually. They gathered out of clear air, rose in branch-shapes from every tree, joined and descended upon him.
The wind of their wings lifted the edge of his shirt. The hum changed tone as they dipped toward the sandwich, flowing by his feet in a falling river, and continued until he thought all the beetles in the world must have passed by. Then they faded into the air again, and the sandwich was gone.
“Our thanks,” said the ghostly figure on the throne, “This was a worthy gift. I must now give in return. What would you like most at this moment?”
Bill answered immediately. “I’d like a full explanation. I don’t want to offend you, but this is all very strange to me. Who are you?”
“I am the Genius of the Fog.”
Bill narrowed his eyes. “Genius?”
“I am the being that rules the coming of the fog. My domain lies in the lifting of water into air, chilly shrouds in low places, the veils that turn all flesh into phantoms. I am the places between the Known and Mystery, the object obscured by a smeared lens.”
“But why is this fog a different color?”
“I hold my court here. My crown flavors the fume, and my servant go to and fro, bringing me news. In you, they recognized the descendant of storied heroes, and they brought me your likeness.”
The boy nodded. “That’s the other thing. The people here in ancient times weren’t like what you describe. My ancestors lived a long ways away. They came from Britain and Poland, and lot of other places. I don’t understand. Could you tell me more about these stories?”
This seemed to please the Genius. “The most recent I have heard concerns a courtship, the first tale of its kind. A young lady who was a stranger, in exploring this place, found herself within a ruined castle, of which little remains. She found a young man in those ruins, living with the wolves who had raised him. There he wooed her, and there she wooed him. You have the look of both of them.”
The boy’s eyes stood wide, and he was not breathing. At last he swallowed, tried to speak, cleared his throat and said, “What was the color of the girl’s hair?”
“It was black. It shone as the underside of the raven’s wing.”
He remembered now. He remembered all of them, the other stories the ghost on the throne had mentioned. Alone in this forest, often he had made himself a prince, a great hunter, a warrior. His books had revolved in his mind, and he had lived the adventures, changing them to suit himself.
Lately, there had been a change. Last week he had gone to the circle of fallen trees, and he had seen it as a castle, beams and walls broken through, the domain of wild things. There, for the first time, a female had been cast in the theatre of his imagination, and he had exchanged secret kisses with the air and imagined her lips against his. The Savage stepping into the role of the Lover.
He looked up at the Genius and shook his head. “These weren’t my ancestors, sir. These are the stories I tell myself when I’m alone. I play out here. There’s never anyone but me. I’m sorry, I almost feel like I’ve lied to you.”
He could never have admitted to anyone else that he longed to be in love. But the Genius stared with such wonder that Bill’s embarrassment was swallowed up immediately.
At last the crown brightened, and the voice was clearer. “These stories were told to me, and now I find they never occurred. I live in many forests, gullies and coves in many lands, and I have never found such a volume of stories as I find here.”
Bill felt suddenly, intensely observed, from all directions. “Did--things--watch me every time I played here? Did they somehow remember stories? Pull them from my mind?”
“And did they tell those tales to my beetles?” the Genius of the Fog asked, as if he himself were not sure.
Then the Genius stood, and kept standing, until his crown towered above the tops of the trees. Then he shrank as he descended from the throne, until at last he was only as tall as Bill was.
“From henceforth, you are the Teller of Tales, the chief bard of this forest. For as long as you play here, build such things as you long for, the Court of the Fog will convene among these trees. You will see the forest glowing gold, and you will be welcome to come and meet with me. Accept our friendship.”
The Genius of the Fog held out a crown, shining white and coming away in wisps, and placed it on Bill’s head.
Bill did not know when the fog vanished on that long walk home. He saw his house suddenly through a layer of leaves, lit with the dawn, and went slowly across the grass, the weight of unseen tales upon his head.