Short Stories

The Music in the Forest

In an old forest there lived a faun.

He knew the names of all the trees and he spent his days wandering among them and talking to them with the music of his flute. The faun was as old as the woods and he remembered the days when the forests were immeasurable in size and filled the whole Earth, before the time when the forest creatures had fled and the humans had come.

Today, there were two humans in his forest now. The faun was following them, hopping from behind tree to tree and watching as they ran. There was a little boy in blue and an even littler girl in red. They were running and laughing and occasionally tripping and falling.

Eventually, the two children ended up rolling around on the golden leaves that littered ground. They laughed as pushed and teased each other. The faun smiled and a wicked glint lit up his eyes. He was glad to be back in the human realm.

The boy’s name was Will.

Will pinned his sister to the ground and stuck out his tongue. The girl tried to squirm away but Will older and stronger. Both children were small for their age but the girl was tiny. Dad liked to say, whenever she misbehaved, that what she lacked in size she more than made up for in temper. The girl always took this as a compliment and beamed in response.

Will stood up and helped his sister to her feet. She thanked him by punching him in the shoulder with a tiny fist.

“Ouch!” he yelled. Will had to admit that it really did hurt a little. Their constant wresling and jostling was making the little girl stronger all the time.

As he brushed leaves and dirt off of his blue coat, Will thought he saw a faun-shaped blur hide behind a tree. The forest was magical so he was not surprised. The children lived with their father in a house nearby, just down a little road. Will had always expected to find fauns and elves and gnomes hiding behind every tree but he hadn’t ever seen one yet.

His sister saw that he was staring off into space and lunged at him, tackling him to the ground. The forest floor rose up to meet his nose, struck him hard on the face, and made him see stars.

“What are you staring off into space for?” the girl said from on top of him.


The girl’s name was Emma.

She was delighted to catch her brother off guard. She stuck out her tongue even though Will’s face was buried into the ground, and then jumped off him. The excited energy that came from her victory ran through her body and she needed to run it off.

Before Will could stand, she yelled, “Hide and seek! You’re it, Willy!”

Closing her eyes, Emma spun around a few times, her brown hair and red coat flailing wildly in the wind. She stopped spinning, opened her eyes, and took off at a run in the direction she was facing.

Moments later, when she was beginning to tire, she slowed down to look for a good place to hide and found a pretty white oak, tall with reddish brown leaves.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said to the tree. “Would you mind too much if I hid behind you?”

Emma surmised that the tree said it was no problem at all, and he welcomed her presence near him. With a wide smile, she pressed herself against the tree and spread her arms wide in a big hug. She gave the tree a quick kiss and he blushed.

She laughed and ran around to the other side and knelt on the ground, peeking out so that she could see Will coming.

When Will finally stood up all he could do was roll his eyes. His nose hurt and his face was covered with dirt and leaves, wet from the tears that his sister had forced out of him. Emma was like a natural disaster sometimes. He wondered how long he would have to spend in jail for sororicide and decided that the authorities would probably go easy on him since he was a minor, and his crime would be considered the equivalent of stopping a typhoon. They might even give him a medal.

Will wandered about aimlessly for a good long while. He called out to Emma as he walked: “Emma!” and “Come on, Emma!” and also “Emma! I don’t want to play this stupid game!”

The forest was quiet but for the low whisper of a light wind that rustled the leaves about. Will’s voice carried far. Wherever Emma was hiding, she would be able to hear him.

“I’m not going to look for you anymore,” he shouted. “I’m just going to sit right here and wait for you to come out!”

Precisely where he was standing, Will dropped to the ground and sat down, determined to out-stubborn Emma. He waited a grand total of fifteen minutes before giving up, throwing his arms in the air, and setting off back home to get Dad.

Will had walked almost as far as the road that marked the edge of the forest when he heard a runtish voice speak to him.

“You don’t want to do that now, small friend.”

The boy turned and saw a head sticking out from behind a tree.

“Who are you?” he asked. The creature stepped away from the tree and Will saw that it was the faun-shaped blur he had glimpsed earlier.

Bowing, the faun said, “My name is Domingo and I am at your service, Will.”

The boy wasn’t surprised that the faun knew his name. He expected no less from a magical creature of this sort.

“Hi, Domingo,” he said. “What don’t I want to do?”

“Don’t leave the forest,” said Domingo. He hopped about in place a bit with a jittery energy, his hooves crushing dry leaves underneath them. “Let me explain!”

Domingo did not explain, but instead galloped off into the woods. The boy lost track of the speedier faun but he was able to follow the music of his flute. It sounded actually like a cello. When Will caught up with him, he found Domingo standing beside an oak tree topped with reddish brown leaves.

“Here is the one you are looking for,” said Domingo.

Will scanned his surroundings carefully and saw trees and leaves in every direction, a few fist-sized rocks scattered here and there, and some fallen branches. There was no sign of miniature hurricanes that sometimes responded to the name “Emma.” Not wanting to offend, he corrected Domingo as politely as he could.

“I’m looking for my sister Emma, sir. Have you seen her?”

Domingo nodded. “Yes, and here she is!” he exclaimed. The faun then made a grand, slow gesture with his flute, ending it by pointing at the tree. Will made a slow lap around the oak, then a quick one just in case Emma was circling on the opposite side, trying to hide from him. He came around where he had started then looked up into the branches and squinted as he tried to spot his sister’s red coat among the reddish brown leaves. With a look of perplexed defeat he turned back to the faun.

Domingo cleared his throat and recited:

Once a free girl, now in a tree.

Guess his name, and free she’ll be.

“Eh. That doesn’t sound so great in English,” said Domingo. “Actually, it doesn’t sound so great in Taioureng either.” He squatted down right where he was and mumbled to himself, tapping out a metre as he went. This carried on for a while and Will worried that Domingo had forgotten about him.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said softly.

The faun blinked at him. “Eh? Yes? Can I help you?”

“Uh. Yes, I was wondering if you had seen my sister?”

Domingo jumped up.

“Oh, right!” he said. “Emma. I was explaining that she is trapped inside this tree and the only way to get her out is by guessing his name. It’s an ancient game that was first played long before humans ever infested… excuse me, long before humans ever populated the world.”

“I’m sorry,” said Will. “I’m not sure I understand. Who’s name am I supposed to guess?”

“Every tree in the forest has a name, Will, and I know them all. If you can guess the name of this tree here, then he will let Emma come out. The game has only one rule.”

Domingo hesitated. “Well, I suppose it’s not really a rule since you can’t break it. It’s more like a law of nature, like universal gravitation. The rule is that you can’t leave the forest under any circumstances.”

He paused and seemed to reconsider.

“Well, you can leave the forest, actually, and under all circumstances. There is nothing physically stopping you from doing so but there are two consequences.”

He stopped again and counted using fingers.

“Eh, I think I have this sorted out now. There are at least two consequences because we could count the consequences of the consequences of the consequences and so on and so forth. But the point is there are two immediate consequences that will follow if you leave this forest.”

The faun held up a finger and said, “One. You will forget Emma ever existed.” Another finger joined the first. “Two. Emma will be trapped inside this tree forever.”

The situation was confusing despite the explanation but, not knowing what else to do, and feeling that he had no other choice, Will decided to play the game.

Will was at it for what felt like hours. At first he had been trying to think critically about the problem and somehow deduce the name of the tree, but he had resorted to blind guesswork when he realized that he was short on clues.

“Why didn’t you just ask me what was in your pocket?” he said, trying to keep the accusatory tone out of his voice.

“I don’t have pockets,” said Domingo.

It was true. Domingo was wearing no clothing.

“I feel like I’ve gone through the whole dictionary,” said Will. He had begun with the obvious guesses: tree, leaf, bark, red, green, brown, Fangorn. He had ended with the less obvious ones: Joey, Billy, Brody, Antarctica, Venezuela, New Mexico, and more. After that, he had started at the beginning of the alphabet and guessed every A-word he could think of before moving on to the bees and the cees and so on.

Domingo nodded. “This is what they call a dictionary attack,” he said. “But you only have a small dictionary. It’s in your head and it only has one language in it, excepting Venezuela, and I’m not sure about New Mexico.”

“What language is the tree’s name in?”

“Do you speak any other languages?”

Will shook his head no.

“Then it doesn’t matter, does it?”

It probably didn’t so Will tried another approach.

He tried to inspect every inch of the tree, looking for clues or a secret switch that would open a secret entrance, but it proved difficult. It was a big tree and he couldn’t reach the tallest branches without a rope or a giant ladder.

Presently, he found himself hugging a thick branch, trying not to look down.

Domingo was laughing. “What are you looking for? Do you suspect that the tree’s name is printed up there somewhere next to ‘Made in China’ and the UPC code?”

“It’s just UPC,” Will called down to him. “The C stands for ‘code.’”

The boy climbed back down. It was a slow, laborious process that involved a few scrapes. When he was finally back on the soft ground it was beginning to get dark. The cool wind had picked up and it caused the fallen leaves to rustle discordantly as it stirred them about. Will hugged his coat.

“How is Emma?” he asked.

“Emma is well,” said Domingo. “Don’t worry about Emma. She is sleeping like the baby that she is. She is safe and warm and well fed.”

Will was very hungry and tired. His arms and legs were scraped and his face still hurt. It was getting dark, windy, and cold. He dropped to the ground and buried his face into his hands.

Emma woke up in a dark place. There was a dim light far up above her that illuminated her surroundings and sometimes reflected off shiny motes that floated here and there in the air. She was in a roughly circular room with smooth walls and a moist, cool floor. The place smelled the way dust does after the rain and it was cool but comfortable. She remembered getting there but didn’t know how long she had been sleeping since then.

“Good evening,” said a voice, which she recognized as that of Domingo. “It’s not looking good out there.” He was nowhere to be seen and it felt as though he was speaking to her inside her head.

“Will’s smart,” Emma said, the sound of her voice echoing back to her inside the tall cylinder. “He’s the smartest kid in his class. He’ll figure it out.”

“Maybe we should help him,” Domingo’s voice said. “How about we give him a hint? You come up with something and I’ll tell it to him. But don’t go giving the game away!”

As Emma was trying to think of a hint that Domingo wouldn’t veto, one of the shiny motes floated down slowly and settled on her nose. It was feathery and it tickled. Emma giggled happily, her musical laughter reverbating inside her prison. As if in response, the light above glowed brightly, filling the room and causing all the motes floating in the air to shine bright.

“What are you doing in there?” said Domingo’s voice.

“Is that light his heart?” asked Emma.

“Yes,” said Domingo. “It shines brighter the happier he gets.”

Emma went to one of the walls and ran her hand along its surface, smiling and feeling her heart swell with affection. Of course, she thought, they laugh on the inside!

Domingo interrupted her contemplation. “Did you think of a hint yet?”

Emma nodded to no one in particular. “Tell Willy this: I lied.”

Will was still sitting on forest floor in front of the tree. It was nearly dark. The sun was setting somewhere beyond the great trees to the west. He wasn’t thinking about the game anymore. He was studying Domingo instead. The faun was squatting nearby with his eyes closed and his arms rested on his legs. His ears twitched now and then as if he was listening to something that Will couldn’t hear. The creature had cloven hooves in place of feet. His lower body was covered in thick, black fur. His upper half was almost human except for pointed ears and small horns protruding from the top of his head. The skin on his face was smooth and young but the areas around his eyes looked very old.

Domingo opened his old eyes and looked straight back at Will.

“Will, I have a message for you,” he said. “I just spoke with Emma and she sent you a hint. I didn’t want you to quit just yet and leave poor Emma.”

“I wouldn’t leave her!” exclaimed Will.

“Yes, yes, unconditional love and all that, eh?” said Domingo. “I have been around a long time, Will, and I’ve seen undying devotion die over and over again. But let’s not argue about it since we’re testing your love and devotion right now, are we not?”

“Domingo,” said Will, then hesitated. “Are you real?”

“No,” replied Domingo. “Now, do you want to hear the hint?”

Will nodded.

“Emma told me to tell you that she lied.”

There had been a time when Will and Emma had been horsing around in their living room and had knocked over a penny jar. Pennies had fallen everywhere and the jar had been shattered. It had occurred to Will to escape a scolding by blaming the cat, Mr. Jingles.

When Dad came home that day Will explained the cat’s misdeed.

“Is this true, Emma?” Dad asked, turning to the girl for confirmation.

Emma had been sitting on the carpet, idly flicking pennies into the penny bowl that was the temporary replacement for the broken penny jar. She froze in place and her eyes went wide.

“Emma?”

She turned to face Dad slowly, not saying a word, not even blinking.

“Emma, did Jingles break the jar?”

Emma just stared at him with her eyes wide open. She pressed her lips hard together into a thin line. She turned red as the seconds dragged on and Will became aware that she was producing a quiet, high-pitched squeal. It was as though there was a great pressure building up inside her and she was about to explode.

“Emma,” Dad said, sternly now. “What in the world are you doing? Now out with it. What happened to the penny jar?”

Emma stood up and bolted. As she ran out of the room it all came rushing out in a squeal:

“Willandmebrokethepennyjardadsorry!”

Will sighed in defeat as he heard her feet stomp up the stairs. Down from her bedroom came Emma’s wail, “Mister Jingles is innocent!”

Will stood up from the forest floor and started walking. Domingo walked along beside him. The boy did not say anything, but only looked straight ahead and ignored the faun. Domingo was more than happy to fill the silence.

“Walking and thinking? I like to walk when I think. I like to walk all the time and I like to think when I walk, except when I play my flute. Do you know how often I play my flute? Constantly.

“When you’re out for a walk and you think you hear a faint music in the distance that’s probably me that you’re hearing. Different people hear a different musical instrument when I play. You might hear a flute or a cello but someone else might hear a trombone.

“There was an old man once and I gave him a great fright. He heard a church organ. Ran out of here like the devil was chasing him. The devil doesn’t do much chasing though, since he can just get you in your sleep.

“Some people hear a dog whistle. Only they don’t hear it, understand? Funny, no?

“Eh! We’re almost at the edge of the forest. You are not thinking of walking out, are you? Don’t forget the rules. If you leave this forest she will have to stay in that tree forever.

“Do you know what instrument Emma heard? The trumpet. You play the trumpet. Emma said she loves to listen to you play.

The road was in sight.

Domingo said, “Are you just going to leave her? What kind of brother are you? She will be trapped forever and she will blame you and hate you, and I won’t let her forget that you abandoned her.”

Will stopped at the edge of the forest just in front of the road that led back to his house. He looked at the faun and said, “Domingo, I don’t believe a word you say anymore.”

He stepped out onto the road and walked home.

“Is it over?”

“No, not yet.”

“Oh,” said Emma, “I wish you wouldn’t talk inside my head. It’s scary.”

“I didn’t think anything could scare you,” said Domingo. “But I lied. Maybe it really is over.”

“What do you mean?” asked Emma.

“Will is gone. I tried to stop him but he wouldn’t listen to me. He said he was hungry and tired and that he has had just about enough of you and all the trouble you get into. He also said that he doesn’t care if he never sees you again.”

Emma blinked.

“Okay,” she said. “I’m going to go back to waiting now.”

Domingo’s voice sounded surprised and annoyed.

“You are mad. Your entire family is mad. You are never leaving this place. Don’t you care that your brother and father are just going to abandon you here?”

Emma sat down against the wall. “It’s a bunch of lies and you are a big liar,” she said. “My hint worked! Will figured out that it’s all a bunch of lies! Liar, liar!”

Domingo tried to speak inside her head once more but Emma cut him off. “Leave me alone!” she said. “Willy will be back soon and he will beat you!”

Will’s house was brown and his door was yellow. He found Dad sitting at the kitchen table eating dinner alone. There was an open book beside his plate and his eyes were darting back and forth along the text as he ate. When he saw Will come in, he dog-eared the book and closed it. The book said “Quantum Chromodynamics” on the cover. Dad had lots of books like that.

“I got tired of waiting for you kids,” Dad said before noticing Will’s dishelleved state. “What happened to you? Where is Emma?”

“She got stuck in a tree,” Will explained.

“Oh,” said Dad. “Well, let’s go get the ladder and get her down.”

Will shook his head and sat on a chair beside him. “No, Dad,” he said. “She got stuck inside the tree.”

Dad frowned. “How did that happen?”

“There was a faun named Domingo,” said Will. “That’s what he said his name was but he’s a liar. He told me that Emma is in a tree and I have to guess the tree’s name to get her out or she’ll be trapped there forever.”

Dad nodded. “You’re right that Domingo is a liar. Emma’s too smart and hyperactive to risk being stuck in the same place for long.”

“Yeah,” said Will. “Domingo said Emma sent me a message. He said the message was that she lied but she never lies.”

Dad smiled and nodded. “So the message must’ve been precisely ‘I lied.’”

“Yeah! But Dad, you already know about Domingo?”

“Of course I do, Will. I lived in this house when I was a boy. I met Domingo before but he left a long time ago and I wasn’t sure he’d be back.”

Will had many questions but he didn’t want keep Emma waiting too long. There was one question that he just had to ask.

“Dad,” he said, “why didn’t you ever tell us about Domingo before?”

“I did!” he said. “What do you think bedtime stories are? Did you think I was making it all up? There were many forest creatures before besides fauns. Maybe they are all coming back now.”

Will was going to have to reconsider many things. “I have to go back to get Emma now,” he said. “I only came to get a dictionary.”

“Don’t bother with the dictionary,” said Dad. “Take your trumpet instead. You know, I almost feel bad for Domingo. He picked the wrong girl to mess with. I’m surprised he hasn’t sent her home himself yet.”

Will ran up to his messy room and got his trumpet out from under his bed. On his way out the front door he said, “Dad, how do I figure out the tree’s name?”

Dad had to think for a moment then said, “What do we do when we’ve tried our best but still can’t figure something out?”

Will was back in front of the great oak. It was dark but Dad had made him bring an electric lamp, which now sat on a rock off to one side. The boy held the trumpet in front of him like it was a glowing, golden sword fit for dragon-slaying.

“Domingo!” he called out.

The faun emerged from behind the tree.

“You’re back,” Domingo said. “Just as I thought you would be, but it’s too late now. There are no second chances. The game is over. You lost.”

“I know how to find out the name of the tree,” Will said. “All I have to do is ask.”

Domingo’s gloating face became wary. He said nothing. The only sound now was the rush of the cold wind and the rustle of the leaves. The only lights were the moon above and the lamp below.

“Domingo,” he said, “What is the name of the tree?”

There was a moment’s hesitation before the faun laughed uproariously. The sound carried among the trees far into the forest.

“That’s it?” said Domingo. “That’s the final volley in this final showdown? You think that this is the solution to the riddle? I can’t believe you are your father’s son. I suppose it was the girl who inherited all of his intelligence. What a ridiculous idea. I’m not going to tell you the name of the tree just because you ask. That’s stupid. Idiotic. Foolish. Moronic. Obtuse. Imbecilic. Doltish. Half-witted. Dull.”

Will did not flinch.

“I didn’t think that was right but I thought I’d try it first,” he said. He turned away from the faun and walked to the great oak. He put his right hand on his rough bark and smiled.

“Good evening, sir,” he said to the old tree. “My name is Will. What’s your name?”

A quiet murmur came from inside the tree. Slowly it grew louder and louder until it became a set of distinct musical notes played in succession and repeated. Will listened carefully and then took up his trumpet and tried to play along, stumbling around the notes at first but slowly coming closer to duplicating the music of the tree.

When Will had it right and he was playing in unison with the oak, another tree close by sang its own name-song and joined in with them. They soon became a trio, and then a quartet, and so on it went, with tree after tree joining in. The music spread throughout the forest and as it did the night was filled with a great symphony of names that serenaded the twinkling stars and the glowing moon.

The great oak that stood at the centre of it all was glowing. Its trunk spread open and a dazzling, happy light poured out. Emma ran out laughing, her eyes wide as she took in the sights and sounds of the music-filled forest.

Emma sat on the ground and watched as Will and her white oak and the rest of the trees sang the song that was the forest’s name. She promised to herself that she would take her violin lessons more seriously and hoped to join in one day soon.

The man’s name was William.

He watched his son and daughter from a short distance away, smiling as Will played his trumpet. He saw Emma’s delighted face and his heart melted.

Domingo walked up to him.

“You’re back,” said William.

“I am,” said Domingo. “Smart kids. They passed the test.”

“What test? What is happening?”

“Trouble,” said Domingo. “They’re all coming back.”

William sighed. “It has to be them? Will and Emma?”

“Yes,” said Domingo. “Only they can save us all.”

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