If not for the extra bottle of wine he drank at his mother’s birthday party, he would have done the sensible thing like a sensible man and called for a cab to take him home that night.
Yet somewhere between the family reunion with his nieces and nephews to fuss over, the bottles of Barolo throughout dinner, his brothers to argue with over the port with dessert, and his mother’s beaming, happy face across the length of the dining table, it seemed like a good idea.
A simple stroll along a familiar path through the beech woods, a shortcut to his downtown apartment that would get him home in an hour, and a chance to clear the wine and the evening from his head, his mind and the sense that he was the black sheep of the family, somehow he was the one who had failed the clan by not conforming to the prescribed script of adulthood with his esoteric tastes and alternate lifestyle, a lifestyle his more conformist brothers would never understand.
It would be so easy; he had walked it a million times in a million different moods and at all hours of the day and night since childhood. He knew every twist and turn and tree through these woods, knew where it dipped down to the stream and rose again with the steep hills toward downtown. His feet knew to watch where the voles dug their holes and burrows in the path by the shading of the leaves, knew where to turn left towards the dell to avoid the long, steep climb to the outskirts of town.
How hard could it be? An hour’s exercise. A clear head at the end of it and the knowledge that his familial duties were over for another year until the next time, the next birthday, and the next soul-crushing sense of filial failure.
So he laughed and waved away the offers for a drive home that night, and set out along the bridle path behind his childhood home with its ancient half-timbered walls and the welcoming glow of its lighted windows towards the towering beeches that guarded the entrance to the woods.
The air was a little colder than usual this late October night. No moon broke through the clouds this close to a New Moon. The only sounds he heard were his own muffled footsteps on the carpet of beech leaves beneath him and a lone owl hooting on the distance on an errand of its own. He breathed in the earthy mushroom scent of damp, molding leaves and tasted the steely, mineral taste of impending winter behind it, sensed a hint of the fallen apples in his mother’s orchard behind him with their sweet, vinegar tang of decay.
As his eyes grew more used to the dark, he saw too, how a rising silver ribbon of mist swirled and eddied and wove itself around the tree trunks, as if winding an Ariadne thread of its own for him to follow through the woods, so he would not be lost…
The very idea! He had walked in these woods since the age of three. That would be impossible when he knew nearly every tree and log by heart, knew that so long as he stayed on the path, his feet would find their own way home from sheer force of habit.
The damp made him pull up the collar of his jacket and burrow his hands a little deeper in his pockets, although he knew he would soon be warm enough so long as he kept his steady pace.
The beech woods were an eerie place at night. Now the street lights were behind him and he had only his night vision to rely upon, it seemed rustles in the leaves and whispers just behind him hovered just beyond his ability to hear, and surely, his eyes played tricks on his mind in the dark? A fleeting glimpse of a woman materialized out of nowhere, glowing with a light of her own in the shadows, but when he turned to look, no such entity stood by that beech, it was all… a superstitious trick of his mind.
Well, it was Halloween, after all.
This beech wood was his own, he had claimed it since childhood, there was nothing to fear here, no wolves in hiding among beneath the boughs, no wild things to make his blood tremble in his veins.
Just his mind playing tricks.
Further along the path, another spectral, human figure, a figure glowing with that same eerie, translucent light, pointing down the path to where…
Nothing more ominous loomed than yet another beech, wrapped up snug in the thickening mist that emanated from everywhere and nowhere.
Fog. It was fog. A cloud came down to kiss the ground, he recited from an old childhood poem, and kept his steady pace.
The night hush of the forest deepened. He heard himself breathe as he walked, a little heavier now, but the rustles and near inaudible whispers faded to silence, and all was quiet except for his footfalls treading softly upon the damp leaves.
All was quiet, almost too quiet for a forest at night. Until an owl right above his head hooted loudly once, twice, three times, and startled him so badly, he nearly ran off the path.
He shook his head, as if to clear away that unnerving feeling in his bones and the wine from his blood. Nothing caught his attention on this misty path, no ghosts hid to scare him behind the tree trunks.
It was all his own twisted imagination, or else that Barolo, or was it that chocolate-y, supernatural port with his dessert? He walked a little faster.
Another owl just ahead hooted once, twice, three times. And straight ahead on the path in front of him, an elaborate Venetian carnival mask on the ground by a tree winked at him with fiery violet eyes, and a perfume, so out of place in the woods and yet so very wild and untamed, so very much richer and denser than any wet leaves and wintry tang wove its way around the boughs along the path and sent his senses reeling.
Where was he? This was nowhere he knew on this old, familiar path, this was not the way home!
In a clearing in the forest, a bonfire burned brightly through the dark October night, burned the mist to memory on the clearing’s edge, and strangely dressed figures turned away from the flames to study him as he stood stupefied by the sight.
Just beyond the bonfire at the base of an ancient oak sat a figure he thought he knew from somewhere, a man not tall and not young, in clothes so strangely dark only his face and hands showed in the firelight.
“Come closer, young man. I’ve been calling you. It takes a while for you to hear, doesn’t it?”
The small group clustered around him as he stood on the path, as if to push him closer to the man in black. He had no choice but to skirt the roaring bonfire and approach him.
“Who are you?” he finally summoned up the courage to ask.
Above his head, an owl echoed his words, once, twice three times. “Who? Who? Who?”
“Ah.” The man laughed, an easy, relaxed laugh that told of long history and longer secrets. “I have so many names. You may call me Dev. Many people do these days. Many more will know me soon enough.”
“Dev? And what are you doing here?”
“You mean you don’t know?” The man motioned to the group that surrounded them. They began to murmur among themselves, some sibilant whisper he could almost but not quite comprehend. “Very well. I’m what you may call… a muse. Among other things. But tonight is my night off, so to say. This night, the veil wears thin between your world and mine, and you were the one to walk through and into it. This night, I call forth those who were to dance a measure with those who are, so they will not be forgotten, and you will not forget.”
What was it that defined this strange man in black to his mind? Was it that disturbing scent that wove itself around him like a cloak of deeper blackness?
Was it the group that stood with them in the forest clearing? They were dressed as if for a costume ball in eighteenth-century clothes, here a prelate in his long black cassock and his gleaming white collar and his sacred air of sanctity and smoke, there an elegant dandy fiddling with his extravagant Valenciennes lace cuffs and a dreamy, faraway expression in his eyes, a woman who sparkled like rubies and pearls in the firelight in her finery, and half-hidden at the back of the crowd, another woman, tall, luminous and blonde, a woman such as he never even knew existed except in his most secret, fevered dreams…
The man in black clapped his hands and more strangely dressed figures appeared in the clearing, some with the starched collars of the seventeenth century, and others with the crinolines, tournures, topcoats and stovepipe hats of the nineteenth.
A plaintive violin rang out in the night, a tune to break the heart beneath the boughs, when it was joined by another tune, a happier, faster melody that quickened his blood and made him want to move. An unseen hand in the dark passed him a glass filled with what appeared to be ruby port. He drank down its rich, decadent depths without a thought, without a care, and before he was even aware of it, joined in the whirl of the dancers around the fire because he could not resist if he tried.
He wanted to laugh, he wanted to sing, and above all, he wanted to forget any other moment or any other place existed as he danced around the bonfire.
He breathed in, and breathed out, a delirious, dizzy laugh, and next thing he knew, the tall, blonde woman he saw at the edge of the crowd stood beside him, as lustrous and as luminous as the fire itself.
“Dev-“ she turned toward the man in black on his oak trunk throne, “you chose him well. He is as like to my Romuald as one drop of water to another!”
The man in black bowed in acknowledgment, and winked at her.
She laughed, a happy, sensuous laugh, and as he stood beside her and breathed in her dark, delirious, deliciously heady scent, the scent that told his blood of all her many secrets, his heart seemed to fly right out of his chest with joy. He pulled her closer, and as she shifted and sighed and snuggled into his arms, he never noticed the silvery gleam in her eyes, never noticed how she snuggled so close to him, was much too preoccupied to notice a tiny pinprick on his neck. All he knew was the woman in his arms, the firelight and laughter in her eyes and the bonfire in his blood. So he whirled around the fire, so he laughed and drank down that delicious wine, so he pulled this woman who called herself Clarimonde aside and knew of all that made her so, knew indeed nothing at all else but how to drown in the silvery, otherworldly gleam in her eyes…
When he woke, he was leaned up against a tree trunk and it was early morning, the first light of day bouncing off the water of the fiord and glimpsed through the trees. As he stood and shook himself all over to clear the cobwebs, loosen up his stiff, cold muscles and what surely must have been some strange and eerie dream, he never noticed the tiny pinprick as he pulled his scarf higher on his neck and walked along the path towards home.
Please also see Indieperfumes Clarimonde memorial post here. With thanks to the perfumers and fellow writers of the Clarimonde Project.