Mr. Joseph Bowser was sick of life. He walked away from his unhappy home, sick not only of his own existence, but of everybody else’s, turned aside down Dog Kennel Lane to avoid the town, crossed the wooden bridge that goes over the canal to Blackstone’s Cottages, and was presently alone in the damp pinewoods and out of sight and sound of human habitation. He would stand it no longer. He repeated aloud with profanities unusual to him that he would stand it no longer.
Mr. Bowser looked around for somewhere to sit but the ground was damp, as were the occasional fallen trunks. Woe is me! he would’ve thought, had he been on passing terms with that expression. He walked, scuffing the fallen pine needles with his shoes until he reached a clearing. There, a log lay in the sun and afforded him a dry – or, at least, sufficiently desiccated – place to rest.
He had determined to take his own life but now he regretted his lack of planning. He had neither knife nor pills nor rope. Short of headbutting a tree, he could think of no method to end his suffering. Perhaps if he held his breath? He could at least pass out. He closed his eyes and held his nose.
“Why so sad?” came a cry, “it’s brightening up, the air is fresh! Everywhere, flowers are showing their colours, the birds are singing. Is it not glorious to be alive?”
Mr. Bowser opened his eyes and, gasping, filled his lungs, looking with astonishment at the stranger.
“There, it feels good to breathe, does it not?”
Mr. Bowser blinked furiously, but the figure remained unchanged. A bare-chested man, perhaps thirty years of age, with shaggy grey hair covering his nether regions, thighs and calves, his legs ending at the ground with cloven hooves. Above the muscular chest, a shaggy grey beard sprouted from the stranger’s chin, and atop the smiling face, curling back over tresses of grey hair, were long curved horns.
“Good lord,” Mr. Bowser exclaimed. “I don’t believe it! Are you real, or am I going mad?”
In his right hand, at the end of a shaggy forearm, the figure held an instrument composed of numerous pipes, bound together such that the pipes ran from the longest, perhaps six inches, down to the smallest, a little less than half that length. He blew into it and a wonderful melody came to Mr. Bowser’s ears. A melody simple, but as sweet as the sweetest honey, and just as mellifluous.
“You hear that, don’t you?” said the stranger, taking the pipes from his lips.
Mr. Bowser couldn’t help but smile. “Indeed, I do.”
“You see me.” The stranger stepped forward and brushed Mr. Bowser’s cheek with a hairy hand.
Mr. Bowser smelt an earthy, animalistic odour.
The figure danced a little jig, smiling all the while. “You feel me and smell me. So why should I not be as real as you? Perhaps more real!”
Mr. Bowser eyed the odd figure, half-animal, half-human. His memories began to stir. “Who are you?”
The figure stopped his dance. “Why, the god of the woods of course. The god of the fields, crops and animals.” He winked. “And the god of fertility and carnal desire!”
The stranger laughed. “Pan, Agreaus, Nomios, Aigikoros, and many others. Take your pick.”
Mr. Bowser thought momentarily. “I like Pan, it’s simpler to pronounce.”
Pan joined Mr. Bowser at the end of the log. He closed his eyes and looked up. “Isn’t it nice to feel the sun on your face?”
Mr. Bowser suddenly remembered why he was there. “Not when you’ve got as many problems as me.”
Pan cocked his head. “And, what, pray, maybe so bad in your world?”
Mr. Bowser sighed. “Oh, I hate my job. I’m just a clerk at everybody’s beck and call. No one seems to like me, not even my wife and children!”
Pan began to play a soothing tune and soon they were joined by two hares, a family of rabbits, three squirrels and a number of pigeons, crows, and a host of smaller, brightly-coloured birds, of whom Mr. Bowser recognized few, save for a greenfinch and a blue tit.
“Why do you not get another job then?” asked a squirrel.
“Well, I have my pension to think of,” replied Mr. Bowser, before realizing, to his astonishment, that he was addressing an animal.
“Pension be blowed!” replied the squirrel. “Do what makes you happy! What does make you happy?”
Mr. Bowser got up and started to pace around. “Well, nothing really. I don’t like to watch the television, nor do I care to read.”
“What about painting?” asked a hare.
“Or playing a musical instrument, like the great god, Pan, here,” purred a pigeon.
Mr. Bowser felt embarrassed. He’d never really been good at anything, he admitted to himself. Then something struck him. “Well, at school, I was in the choir, and at church too. I loved to sing, I even had a few piano lessons, I wasn’t any good at it though, but, well, after school I had to work in an office, then there was Mary, that’s my wife, then Billy came along, then Elizabeth, then the twins. And it was all just work, work, work.”
Pan got up and began to play a tune that Mr. Bowser remembered singing in a school play all those years ago. His eyes misted as he remembered the rapturous applause, even after all that time. He began to sing, “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.” He began to sway in time to Pan’s playing. “Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.”
There was applause from the animal ensemble.
“Oh, your daddy’s rich, and your ma’ is good lookin’”
The animals and birds all joined in. “So, hush, little baby, don’t you cry.”
Mr. Bowser felt enraptured. He continued singing, even doing a little dance and taking off his jacket and loosening his tie. And all the while, Pan’s flute melody sang out so pure and sweet. Then suddenly, just before the final verse, Pan closed his eyes and the melody changed to an improvisation, soaring here and there, running up a scale in one tonality and down in another. Mr. Bowser had never heard anything like it, not being a great listener to music, and certainly not to jazz.
The sun shone and a soft, warm breeze ruffled the fur and feathers of the animals, and what was left of Mr. Bowser’s hair. Finally, Pan went back to the melody, and they all joined in again. At the end, Mr. Bowser closed his eyes and spread his arms out wide. “So, hush, little baby, baby don’t you cry.”
Mr. Bowser kept his eyes closed, sustaining the last note, expecting to hear the animals cheering. Instead, there was nothing. He opened his eyes to find himself in an empty clearing. No animals, no Pan.
With a heavy heart, he walked over to where he had last seen Pan. Sure enough, there were hoofmarks on the earth of the forest floor. He sat down on the fallen log once more and thought over the events. Well, he couldn’t change things just like that, but now he thought about it, there was a local theatre group, and they did musicals too. Just the other day he’d seen a flyer asking for new members to join. At the time he’d scoffed at the very idea, but now, well, now, why not? He’d always been told he had one of those pleasant but ‘neutral’ faces, good for acting, and – after all – hadn’t he just proved he could sing!
Mr. Bowser picked up his jacket, straightened his tie, and began to march back the way he had come, ready to face the music.
Taken from the book, The Window Crack’d and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Horror and the Supranatural
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