The death of a beloved children's writer, Hoke Berglund, draws Jon Sieber into a world he cannot hope to understand – a world filled with Hoke's creations, including the vile Mr. Self Affliction who is the cruel master of this place. In a landscape where angels are beautiful women and the by-blows of nightmares people the mythical Forgetting Wood, Jon, heir apparent to all that Hoke created, falls for Kristen, the writer's daughter, but cannot let her secret remain secret.
"Savile packs more imagination into a short story than many writers manage in a full novel."– Hellnotes
"A modern fantasist of the first order. Watch as Savile carves a niche for himself in the literature of the new millennium."– Tim Lebbon
"Savile manages to successfully evoke a wonderful sense of atmosphere and place, while contemporaneously managing to constantly build the conflict and tension, and swiftly move the action forward"– Fear Zone
The illustration was so much more than paper and ink. It was a farewell gift to a man he had loved without ever really knowing; a man who's few words in Princess Scapegoat, The Forgetting Wood and his last gift, Angel Home, had opened up a new world for so many children like him. Of course Jon wasn't a child anymore but Hoke Berglund had written himself into his heart just the same. When he heard the old man had died it was as though a magic-shaped hole had opened itself in Jon Sieber's life. The magic of childhood, innocence, wonder and the impossible, everything that was so wonderful about Hoke's books, was suddenly gone. Snatched away. The crazy thing was they had never met. Not once.
Jon looked at the drawing again: the old man with his head down and his hands on the Lifestone, praying to the very heart of Angel Home, and to the angels all around him who knew it was too late for prayers.
It was raining. The branches of an old cypress offered little in the way of shelter. The handful of mourners had already begun to drift away, leaving a sad-faced woman alone by the graveside. She held a white orchid in her hand.
She was so lost in her maze of thoughts she didn't hear him approach.
Feeling self-conscious, Jon knelt by the grave and placed the drawing on the coffin lid. It looked pathetic lying there, a scrap of paper just waiting for the mud to fall but he thought the old man would understand. "Goodbye, Hoke," he whispered after a moment.
"Did you know him?"
She had come over to stand beside him. As Jon stood their eyes met. She had been crying.
"Not as well as I would have liked to."
He tried to smile and she nodded that she understood. It wasn't love at first sight. Amid the smells of wet grass, earth and Spring was the sweet aroma of vanilla.
"What do you think angels would smell of, daddy?" The boy asked.
"Vanilla," his father answered without a doubt.
It was the opening line from Angel Home. The realization did bring a smile to Jon's face. It was her own way of saying goodbye.
"Jon Sieber," he said, holding out his hand. "I drew the illustrations for Angel Home."
"I know," she said. "Daddy talked about you a lot. Said you understood the magic. He loved your pictures, you know. I'm Kirsten."
"Thank you, Kirsten. Knowing he liked my pictures means a lot. I grew up reading his books and somehow becoming a part of it, well, it's a dream come true."
"That would have made him happy. All he ever wanted was for people to love his stories. He was a very simple man."
"I can't imagine how anyone couldn't love his stories. They tapped the magic that was so essentially childhood. They looked around the corners of our young minds and said boo to the shadows under the bed. He didn't treat us like children. We were all part of this big secret and Hoke was showing us how the world worked. It always felt that every word he wrote was meant just for me… do you know what I mean?"
Kirsten nodded. "Absolutely. It was Daddy's gift. Look, do you want to go get a coffee or something? I don't mean to be rude but I don't want to stay here. Not with him down there. I've said goodbye a hundred times and now it just hurts to look at that wooden box and think of him inside it."
"Oh God, of course. I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking."
They walked out of the cemetery towards the city itself. The cemetery was older than any of the houses nearby, dating back to when the city was a few buildings on the hill and the gothic sculptures of the cherubs and martyrs were of the whitest marble. Now they were wrapped in ivy and soot-stained and the city had grown out past the cemetery, swallowing it whole.
Jon's illustrations decorated the window of a small corner bookstore, colourful display boards promising a classic children's fable from Hoke Berglund.
"He hated the story, you know. Thought it was too dark for kids."
"Well, it's not exactly Elidor."
In Angel Home the angels were dying because God, their father, was forgetting them. Even in Angel Home itself they weren't safe but a young boy, Thomas, who had been killed in a stupid, stupid accident, held the key. If Thomas could learn the secret of Angel Home he could remember them in his own way and keep them all alive. Thomas, the Boy Who Saved the Angels.
The book hadn't sold well. Critics had said it was too dark, too depressing. Tackled too many issues children shouldn't have to deal with.
They turned away from the window. The rain was growing heavier so they ducked into a small cafe across the street from the bookstore and ordered; black coffee, strong, for Jon, whipped chocolate sprinkled with flakes of almond for Kirsten.
"I don't want to be alone, Jon." She said, staring into the layers of cream in her cup. "Not tonight. Maybe tomorrow but not tonight."
"You don't have to be," he said softly, then realized what he had said. "I mean, if you want me to I can sleep on the couch, then I'll only be a few feet away."
"You're an angel," Kirsten said, putting her hand over his. "I would like that very much, if you don't mind."
"I don't mind."
"You must think I'm crazy."
"Not at all. I think you are beautiful and sad and if I can help take the sadness away then that is what I want to do."
"I think daddy was right about you."
They spent the day talking, walking and to some extent falling in love. Jon couldn't help himself. He didn't want to fall in love. Didn't want to look at Kirsten and see the future so openly written in the lines of her cheekbones and the midnight blue of her eyes but there was something about her.
They walked through the park in the rain, stopping to watch giggling children feed the swans with chunks of bread.
"Did you know swans mate for life?" she said.
"Yes. It's beautiful but it's sad as well." She pointed at a beautiful white swan alone in the middle of the lake whilst the others fed near the shore. "Her partner died last year, so she's been alone ever since. She won't find a new love. It's not her way. She'll grow old, alone."
"That's sad," Jon said, looking at the bird out there alone on the water. "So even if a new male tried to make her feel special she won't take the risk of letting herself fall in love again?"
"That's right. I feel like her right now," Kirsten admitted. "Like the bird no one else can love."
Jon didn't have an answer for that. He wanted to tell her she would find love but even without saying it he knew it would sound trite. It was like telling someone 'it's okay, you'll get over it. Tomorrow it won't seem half as bad and the day after you won't worry about it at all.' It was the kind of meaningless sentimentality that worked on greetings cards but fell flat face-to-face.
Instead of talking he took her hand and steered her towards the shelter of the bandstand. A young boy was playing a tin whistle. He smiled when he saw them coming and stopped playing to roll himself a cigarette. Jon sat Kirsten down beneath the roof of the bandstand and knelt beside her.
"What do you see?" he asked.
"People having fun in the rain. What do you see?"
"A million things I could never hope to draw. Light and shade. Angles and textures that my inks could never duplicate."
"Why did you bring me here?"
"I like to sit here when I feel sad. I look at the faces of strangers falling in and out of love, at children playing with a world full of dreams still to happen, at the couples who have grown old together sitting on the benches watching a world that has become too fast for them pass by all around them, amazing them with its sights and sounds."
"It must be lovely to see the world the way you do, Jon. To see the magic in the mundane."
"All you have to do is look for it," he promised, taking a pebble from the floor of the bandstand and smoothing it between his fingers. "This could be a stone, just like any other stone, or it could be a flake of history that has seen kings and queens die, stars fall and castles built in the sand. Just depends how you choose to look at it. I like to think that the pebble somehow holds a few memories of everyone who has ever held it, every foot that has ever kicked it. I like to wonder who they were. What their stories were." Jon smiled a little self-consciously as he spread his hands. "I guess I am a dreamer."
"No, but I think you must be a very wonderful person to know, Jon Sieber. I'm glad you came into my life today."
"I'm glad too," Jon said honestly.
"Will you take me home now?"
They walked the mile and a half to her apartment on the waterfront. There wasn't a beach. It wasn't that kind of waterfront. Bonded customs warehouses lined the strand, old paintings from the turn of the century advertising China teas and fine Indian silks. Kirsten lived on the top floor of a disused granary that Hoke had converted into an artist's studio over thirty years ago. It was full of canvases, most were blank but the few that had been painted on all showed images from Hoke's books. Jon went over to the window where the fading sun cast a different light on the old man's paintings. They weren't the sanitized children's illustrations of Princess Scapegoat and The Forgetting Wood that he knew so well. They were bleaker visions by far. Jon looked at Kirsten where she lay foetal on the futon. She had fallen asleep almost as soon as they had arrived, the exhaustion and mental stress too much for her to deal with and now she was dreaming whatever dreams this strange assortment of Hoke's canvasses inspired.
Doing his best not to wake her, Jon brewed himself a coffee and spooned two lumps of fresh cream into the cup. Steam corkscrewed from the coffee as he carried it back to his seat on the windowsill. The room, he noticed, smelled very faintly of vanilla. He smiled to himself. She was beautiful, childlike, a little lost. He sat there on the windowsill, fingers feeling out the grain in the wood, and watched Kirsten sleeping. She was someone who needed protection. Someone he found himself wanting to protect. Someone to grow old with. Almost an hour later he moved to a chair and drifted off to sleep himself, thinking how easy it would be to fall in love with Kirsten Berglund.
The sound of a door closing woke him up a few hours later.
He was alone in the apartment.
Kirsten was gone.
He waited but she didn't return until morning. He was making himself an omelette when she let herself back into the apartment.
"I needed to clear my head," she said by way of explanation as she dropped her coat on the couch and came over to wrap her arms around his waist. "Smells good."
"Well, thank you. Omelette ala Sieber, with a garnish of fresh pesto, avocados, pimentos and basil. Just something I threw together," he said with a smile. "I thought you might be feeling hungry after all that walking..."
It was a pattern that was repeated for the next four nights; Kirsten would curl up on the couch whilst Jon looked at the miscellany macabre that had somehow been spawned by Hoke Berglund's mind, piecing them together with his own interpretations of the old man's last story, Angel Home, then he would watch her sleeping. It was his secret; the time when he felt himself falling more and more in love with her. Then, after he had drifted off the sound of the door closing would wake him. She would return in time for breakfast, insisting on a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice with plenty of pulp swimming in it.
At first he imagined she was sneaking out to meet with someone but she never smelled of cologne, never dressed up or wore makeup when she slipped out at night. She simply kissed him on the forehead and left. It wasn't the behaviour of someone tangled in a web of clandestine affairs and adulteries.
On the fifth night Jon played possum, faking deep sleep as she leaned over to kiss him. He had counted to twenty-three in his head before he heard the door close. Stuffing his feet into his sneakers he waited for the grumble of the freight elevator and the slamming of the wire cage doors before he followed her. With the groans of the cage straining against the old cables echoing in the stairwell, Jon ran down the stairs, taking them three and four at a time, desperate not to lose her.
Kirsten stood on the street corner, caught in the lemon yellow trap of the streetlight. She had her arms wrapped around her. He could see she was shivering but he stayed back, hiding in the shadows of the old granary's huge steel doors. Jon resisted the temptation to duck away as Kirsten looked back fretfully before she knelt to put something on the floor, then she disappeared around the corner into the heart of the warehouse district.
He followed cautiously, stopping at the corner to see what she had dropped.
It was a pebble. Simple. Smooth sided. It felt warm in his hand. He put it back down. Jon followed Kirsten around the next corner and found another pebble marking the way. He wasn't sure what she was doing – all he could think was that Jews used pebbles like this as marks of respect on graves. Was she walking through the city every night just to leave little marks of respect on every street corner? Or was she like a child in a fairy tale leaving breadcrumbs to find her way back home?
The street smelled of freshly baked bread.
He nearly bumped into her as he walked around the next corner.
"You're following me?" she said simply. She looked surprised. No, not surprised, frightened. She looked frightened. It was the last reaction he had expected.