Vidos Baum, that brilliant author of stories and plays, carried a cup of steaming black coffee into the room designated as his study. It was the smallest room in a country house that itself was not large, except perhaps in the imaginations of Baum’s devoted readers. This day he was not expecting any visitor to his “sanctum sanctorum,” as he called it, self-consciously pedantic, deliberately putting intellectual distance between him and any guest.
Though few admirers of his fantastical works made the tiresome pilgrimage into the mountains of the Black Forest to see him, he made no special accommodation for those who did. Their horses weren’t fed, their many thirsts—all so predictable—not slaked. He silently watched while they cleared manuscript pages from the lumpy armchair. Once they could sit, their feet were imprisoned by unsteady stacks of books that erupted from the carpet like toadstools. Soon they were overcome by the desire to depart before night and some greater darkness fell upon them.
The tiny study’s predominant feature—a tall casement window nearly reaching the floor—suggested it was not merely a disused closet, as might at first be supposed. Now in late spring, that window gave onto a dew-diamonded lawn that stretched to the thick woods beyond, a patch of primeval forest that looked as if it might harbor the secrets of centuries.
Rising from his cup’s inky depths, the coffee aroma awakened Vidos’s senses and drew him in. All the words he hoped to write swirled in that dark pool. The barb of his imagination would hook them like the glittering perch he caught in the lake behind the woods and lay them on his page, one word after the other, mouth to tail, onset to rime, end to end. Surely on this bright day, the magic of creation would descend upon him and make that possible once more.
He set the cup on a cork mat with crumbling edges and eased the study door closed. The noise of a dropped pin could puncture the sleep of his wife Alarica. Then her complaints: “I am not a morning person.” Morning was followed by afternoon: “I am not at my best.” Then evening: “I am simply too tired to think.” Leaning against the door, he shut her out of his mind.
He wrote a few disappointing phrases before allowing his attention stray to the outdoors. Some distance into the forest a tree had partially fallen, and the angle of its lean perfectly mimicked the long steep rooflines of the style of cottages favored in this region. When time came for the midday meal, he assembled a thick slice of bread, a piece of cheese, and a few berries on a plate. While he ate, he mentioned the illusion to Alarica.
“No one should be building a house in there.” She glared at Vidos. “My father owns that land all the way to the lake.”
“I did not say someone is building a house. I said the way the tree leans reminds me of a cottage roof.”
“They had better not be.”
Overnight, May’s changeable weather produced a considerable wind, and the next morning the leaning trunk had been joined by another that leaned in the opposite direction, so it appeared more than ever as if the roof of some kind of dwelling was taking shape deep in the woods.
“Come to the study,” he said to Alarica, laughing. “You will see why I noticed it.”
She looked in the direction he pointed. “It is two falling-down trees.”
“Yes, but do they not give the impression of a little house?”
She grunted and returned to the kitchen, where potatoes and carrots for kartoffelsuppe waited on the chopping block.
So it went. A few mornings later, a glint of reflected light like that from a window sparkled under the false eaves created by the two drooping trees. Vidos shook his head to dislodge the vision, but it remained. Cup in hand, he strolled across the damp lawn toward a trail that entered the woods a few yards to the right of his imaginary cottage. The illusion of the roof and the glass held until he reached the edge of the lawn, when it separated into its different planes and the two trees no longer met. The supposed window pane was a piece of something shiny blown up into the brush. Rattled by the breeze, it caught the sun.
He drank his coffee, enjoying the cool freshness of early morning and the songs of the diligent birds summoned by their ravenous chicks. Coming, coming, coming. The resinous scent of spruce and fir joined the woods’ loamy freshness, and the path cushioned with pine needles made walking pleasant. The forest whispered messages his human ear couldn’t quite catch. He stayed long after the cup was empty until further delay would be impolitic.
“What were you doing out there?” Alarica asked. She wore a sagging nightgown, her uncombed hair standing in alarm.
Her tone suggested his response should be a careful one. “Getting air. Stretching my legs.” He did not say: Needed to breathe. Wanted to run.
In a voice still clotted with sleep, she said, “We cannot live on dreams, Baum. Fantasies.”
What do you think my stories are, he wanted to ask, but said, “I know, Alarica, I know. The woods help me think. The writing will come. It will be fine.”
But it wasn’t. Over the summer the ideas that sparked his stories—the desperate characters, the agonizing plot twists, the flights of terrible fancy—vanished. His mind was busy as ever, darting here and there as if pursuing dragonflies, but never landing on an idea suitable for developing into one of his strange tales. Worse (much worse, so he thought) the will to write disappeared as well. The clogged runnels for his creative juices produced almost physical pain, and the empty pages on which his stilled pen lay blinded him with their whiteness. As time went on, no matter how softly he shut his study door, it clanged in his brain like a jailer’s gate.
Instead of writing, he spent his time studying the little cottage-that-wasn’t. He imagined its interior. The fire, the chair for drowsing, the larder full of hams and sausages and fresh-baked bread, his books, of course, and sun-scented sheets on a bed wide enough for one.
As summer progressed, the wind and his imagination conspired to assemble a more and more complete dwelling-place. Leggy saplings grew up, casting vertical shadows as straight as those of finishing boards.
A scrap of white cloth caught in the brush fluttered like a curtain at the window under the eaves. Some exceptionally bright foliage, in a shade of green he wouldn’t have thought existed in nature, took on the appearance of a front door, glimpsed through the vegetation. To maintain the illusion, he no longer walked in the woods. When he went to the lake to fish, he avoided the forest shortcut and took the long way around.
His morning coffee, which used to be the fount of the words he needed, turned bitter and gave up nothing.
This literary inactivity did not go unnoticed by Alarica. One day in August, when she shoved the day’s mail under the study door, he saw a letter postmarked Freiburg im Breisgau. It was from his publisher. It had been opened.
The publisher, a chronically unhappy man, was more querulous than usual, though his questions weren’t unexpected. Where was the novel Vidos had promised? Where were his short stories for the winter collections? Why no word from him in months? And the inevitable conclusion: There would be no further advance payment on work that seemed not to exist.
Vidos stared into his empty cup, while Alarica’s heavy footsteps paced the hallway outside his door, as unremittingly as a pulse. Her concern about the dwindling state of the household accounts was clear. She served plain cabbage soup with one bare Schinken bone. Onion soup, weakly flavored with forest mushrooms. Whatever small fish he caught. No meat. No cheese. Gruel thinned with water, not milk. His coffee now looked like tea. He dared not complain and in any case did not have the energy to do so.
The woods filled with autumn’s brief riot of yellow, red, and orange. Like exhausted partygoers, nearly all the leaves departed at once, dashed to the forest floor in a swirl of gray wind and rain. The little house existing in Vidos’s mind, instead of disappearing—as it seems it should have when the elements from which it was constructed changed so drastically—became clearer, more substantial, more defined, more—he caught his breath—real.
Another consequence of October’s first storm was a litter of small branches at the edge of the woods. The slender limbs, each about the diameter of a broom handle, created what now appeared to be a path from the main trail to the door of the would-be cottage.
He tried to return to his work. Not another season could pass in unproductive daydreams. Alarica no longer spoke to him. While he didn’t miss her conversation, he missed talking to her. Inside his chest, the pressure of unexpressed words built daily, crushing his heart.
On a day of heavy clouds when darkness lingered until noon, she shoved a note under the study door.
“Baum, you have a visitor from Freiburg.”
It could only be his publisher, arriving without warning so that Vidos could not manage to be away or pretend illness.
He walked quickly into the front room to greet his visitor, like a man interrupted in a vital task and eager to get back to it. Alarica had taken the publisher’s hat and coat, seated him in the chair closest to the fire, and given him a cup and saucer. She poured tea from their best pot and watched her husband with narrowed eyes.
“Konrad! What a pleasure to see you!” Vidos smiled, unable to dissemble further by asking what brought the man to his doorstep, so far out of his way, when they all three knew why he was there.
“How are you, Vidos? I’ve missed hearing from you.”
“Ah. Well, if my reticence is troubling you, then I will have to let you in on my little secret.”
Alarica stepped closer.
He continued, “I’m working on a new project that is a bit slow-going, but the result will be worth waiting for. An experimental novel.” He envisioned the empty pages on his desk. An experiment doomed to fail.
“And the subject, if I may ask?”
“It’s a combination metaphysical reflection and ghost story—you know how we Germans love philosophy. Ghosts, too. Not ghosts of actual people, in this case, but phantasms. Where the philosophical dream leaves off and the phantasms begin is never quite clear. Intellectual ideas wrapped in wisps of imagination.” What utter bosh. Vidos maintained a pleasant half-smile, as if what he’d said weren’t completely absurd.
The publisher frowned. “That could be a difficult read.” Vidos knew he meant “hard to sell.”
“Oh, yes, it might be, if the treatment of the fantastical elements weren’t so peculiarly engaging.”
“Engaging?” Alarica cut in. Perhaps she was thinking how unengaged he had been for so many months, a whole summer.
“As much as I can make them so.”
“And how does it end?” the publisher asked.
Vidos shrugged. “As all such stories must end.” In truth, he had no clear idea how such a tale might end and used the publisher’s befuddled pause to scramble up an answer to the inevitable next question.
After a moment, it came. “And how is that, my dear Vidos?”
“Death, of course.” No denying that was an ending.
Beads of sweat broke out on the publisher’s brow, and he finished his tea in a gulp. The eeriness of the place or the strange conversation appeared to overwhelm him. He fidgeted in his chair. Not long afterward, before the heavy clouds could produce an early twilight, he departed.
Though Alarica kept the sitting room and kitchen warm, she became parsimonious with firewood for the rest of the house. Shivering in his study, Vidos draped a blanket over his shoulders, terrified by the continued emptiness of his imagination. The hand that held his pen stiffened in the cold, while the other clutched the half-cup of weak and rapidly cooling Arabica that was now his daily allotment.
Desperate, he fetched a piece of dark cloth and tacked it across the lower part of the study window. It blocked the view from his desk, as well as some of the daylight. He did not need light to see that what he wrote hardly merited saving. Alarica might be impressed by the rising stack of paper crawling with words, but Konrad would not be. After a week of working in this enforced semi-darkness, he dared lift the cloth and peek out. Quite a few more downed limbs had joined the ones he’d notice previously. They were taking on the orderly appearance of a path from the woods toward the house, already covering about a quarter of the distance.
He rubbed his eyes, blaming this mirage on the overcast day or an insufficiency of caffeine, and let the cloth drop back into place. He forced himself to his task for another week, refusing to glance outside. When he again lifted the cloth, the path—because now there was no doubt what it was—covered the lawn halfway to the house. On its current course it would soon connect the mirage in the woods with his study window. And then what? Will it stop? Or will it run right through our house—through me!—and up the mountain?
If Alarica noticed the disturbance on the lawn, she did not mention it. Perhaps she did not want to admit that something strange was taking place in their woods, on their lawn, to him.
Now curiosity overcame him and every morning he checked the lengthening path, then tried to work, but of course the attempt was hopeless. A growing excitement drove every other thought from his head. Finally, late on the night the path would surely reach his study window, he rose from his bed unable to sleep. Barefoot and in his nightshirt, he carried a candle through the drafty hallway and into the study. He peered into the darkness outside the window, hoping to observe the very moment when the path closed the last short distance. His hand trembled and drops of wax splattered onto the stack of his writing.
The same cold wind that seeped around the window-frame swept the clouds from the moon, and its sudden silvery brightness limned the roof of the pretend cottage. Behind its window appeared a flickering light, the twin of the candle he carried. The door stood open and a beckoning glow poured onto the trail.
A thump from below the window startled him. The path was complete. He turned the window’s icy handle, pushed it open, and stepped over the low sill. As if announcing the imminent arrival of winter, the wind whipped his thin nightshirt around his knees and extinguished the candle.
The branches that made up the path were rough under his bare feet. Still, he walked toward the woods with confidence. Only once did he turn back to the house and see the carefully laid path disappearing, leaving not even an impression in the faded grass. The season’s first flakes of snow danced alongside him. Despite the cold, he smiled as he entered the protection of the trees. Not much farther now. Warmth billowed from the cottage, and when he reached the welcoming green door, he stepped inside.
BIO: Some thirty of Vicki Weisfeld’s short stories have appeared in leading mystery magazines and anthologies, winning awards from the Short Mystery Fiction Society and the Public Safety Writers Association. She’s a book reviewer for the UK website, crimefictionlover.com, and blogs at www.vweisfeld.com.