Shout out to Lellis and the imaginary goats that scream at her while she sleeps.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people and/or goats is purely coincidental.
One day, when minding my own business, I heard a knock on the door. I reluctantly got up and answered, but there was no one in sight – just a photograph dropped to the ground. It showed the silhouette of a woman in a dress, or perhaps a witch’s robe, against the backdrop of a forest.
I stared at it for a while. I could feel something not quite right about it – as if it shouldn’t be here. Logically, my first assumption was that it was a cryptic message from the future. It was exactly the kind of thing I’d leave if I wanted to send a cryptic message. I thought long and hard, and came to some conclusions: The silhouette must symbolise a question of identity – I could see the shape of a person, but not the person herself. The forest must symbolise growth. I thought perhaps I was being warned not to let my personal growth erase my identity. Or maybe, the fact that the silhouette was standing in front of the forest portrayed the idea that rejecting the concept of a distinct identity can unlock new growth for a person. Quite conflicting ideas? Both equally justifiable? Maybe that’s what my messenger wanted me to think: “cryptic messages are terrible, so when you get to the future and send your past self a message, be sure to make it clear.”
In fact, when I turned it over, those exact words were written on the other side, signed with my own name.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I’ve built a time machine, but other than that, life is roughly the same, until one day, when minding my own business, I heard a knock at the door. I reluctantly got up and answered, but there was no one in sight – just a photograph dropped to the ground. Sounds familiar? Yeah, it was the same photograph, but no message on the back. I spent hours trying to guess meaning from it until I angrily scribbled on the back “cryptic messages are terrible, so when you get to the future and send your past self a message, be sure to make it clear.”
I signed it, sent myself back in time, placed it on my doorstep, knocked, and left. I realise now that I could have just put that note on the fridge for present-me and there was no advantage of sending it to past me… but in my defence, I was too annoyed to think clearly at the time.
Another year or so later, I met a woman in a bar and bragged about my time machine. She came back to see it, but it turns out she was only in the country on holiday. We took one trip in the machine, going back a few years, where she wrote and posted a letter. I thought little of it, until we got home, and she wasn’t there anymore. She was gone, but I had vague memories of her from my past.
You don’t play around with a time machine without experiencing the weird feeling of arriving back in your time to find new altered memories of the past. This time it was different though. Usually the memories settle within a few minutes as you readjust to the new timeline. Usually, any paradox is somehow inexplicably resolved by the universe and filtered out of your memory – but seemingly arbitrarily, some paradoxes cause a big mess.
I found out later than the letter she sent was one she had written to herself saying something along the lines of “You should spend a year in this country and befriend the time-travel guy so you can steal his machine.”
Clearly, it didn’t work as I still had the time machine, despite my new memories of her having been around and being uncomfortably nosy around it. I waited a few days, hoping the memories would settle but eventually I cracked, and set out on a mission. Not knowing how I knew, I followed a hidden trail. Almost subconsciously, I booked trains and flights and cars until I found myself trekking nervously into a dark forest in Sweden, armed with only a camera. A shadowy form slipped past the corner of my eye. I spun to look – and saw nothing. Turning back around, a figure was there – nothing more than a silhouette against the trees. I remembered the photograph, and took it.
The next thing I knew, I was slowly regaining consciousness in an unknown location.
The first sense to return was my hearing, as diabolical screams filled my ears.
A few seconds later, I became visually aware of my surroundings. There were goats everywhere – unexpected, but it relieved my fear that I had died and gone to hell and the screams were demons.
It was only after several minutes of looking around at these screaming goats that I realised I was a tree –but not even the good kind of tree. No. Not even a real one. I was a tacky pantomime prop tree.
And then I saw that she was there. Not a silhouette, though still barely physical in form, but unmistakeably, it was her – the woman from the bar – the ghost from the forest.
“It’s you…” I began, struggling to be heard over the screaming goats, stopping when I realised I no longer knew her name.
Nor did she. “I am the Swedish Forest Ghost now, that is all I know…”
“Why am I a tree?”
“That is how it is. To sustain my existence I must separate souls from their forms. Don’t ask me how that works, you’re the time travel expert… But I don’t like to leave the souls abandoned – that would be cruel!”
“But why put the souls into these horrible props?”
“They’re the only ones I can afford… This is a charitable venture after all!”
“Okay, but why props at all and why here? Wait, what charity?”
“I have to put the souls where I can ensure they’re safe, and this is the only place I can do that – my Opera School for Disadvantaged Deaf Goats. I feel like being charitable helps redeem me for what I have to do to people’s physical forms… at least a tiny bit…”
“I’d rather be a hopeless disembodied soul!” yelled another tree from across the room.
The ghost looked apologetically at it, and carried on, “These poor deaf goats just want to sing, and I can grant that wish. There’s nothing more I can do for the tree-people…”
“Wait!” I exclaimed, “Maybe there is! The last photograph on my camera! Take it to my time machine and deliver a message to past-me not to let the Swedish woman use the time machine! We can undo all this!”
“That might work!” she said, grabbing my camera from a nearby table and running out of the room.
I shouted after her, “Wait! I didn’t tell you what to say! Don’t just leave the photograph, that would be too ambiguous!”
Unfortunately, just as I began to say that, the goats reached the dramatic climax of their rehearsal, and my voice was drowned out in the noise. I have to say though, she’d done a good job training them to sing when you consider they were all deaf and all they could do was yell.
Obviously, sending the photograph back with no message did nothing but start this whole mess – but my fate was not to be a tree forever. When she finally returned, the Swedish Forest Ghost had brought my time machine back to the opera school with her, and told me about a plan she had thought of.
She dragged the time machine and my tree-form all the way to the forest, and warped us back to the moment of disembodiment. Before I realised the time had already come, I felt my soul leap from the tree into the lifeless body that my past-soul had just been sucked out of. As I fell to the ground and scrambled to my feet, I watched my own disembodied soul get crammed into a tree prop and carried away.
Beside me, the Swedish Forest Ghost stood and put a hand on my shoulder.
“You are free,” she said with a smile.
I thanked her and told her she could keep the time machine to try to free the other souls – I didn’t want it any more after all the trouble it had caused. We went our separate ways with the promise of staying in touch. I said I’d try my best to make her human again, but she told me she had grown to love being a spooky forest ghost and didn’t want to go back.
The next time I saw her was at the first performance of the opera goats. They were awful – but it was still fairly impressive when you considered that they were deaf goats.