“Don’t go into the forest,” the locals warn you, their eyes darting from side to side. “The Devil lives there. You won’t recognise him, because he changes forms every time. The forest changes too. It’s the Devil’s work.”
But what about the robberies, you ask. Travellers who go into the forest report being robbed, their most precious possessions taken from them. By men; not by demons.
“They are those who did not listen to our warnings,” they huff. “They deserve whatever that happened to them.”
You suspect that these locals are actually the ‘demons’ in the forest. There are no such things: the Devil is surely too occupied with the multitudes in Hell to ever make a trip up to the land of mortals. Especially to a backwoods place like this, where science has not touched and where men and women still believe in demons and devils too much to do great harm to each other.
Further questions yield no answers. There is only one path for you to take.
It is night when you head out. The locals shake their heads as you pass. The moon shines down, full and heavy. The night skies are filled with stars. You look upwards, locking into your heart the sight of such beauty.
You remind yourself of your duty: you are here to investigate a gang of robbers, and you will not leave without names and faces.
The path that leads you into the forest continues within. Polaris glimmers from beyond the trees, turning the edges of leaves silver-glimmering. You are not a man of much imagination, but you think of blades.
“Strangers should not enter the forest.”
When you turn, a man stands there. Shadows drape over him like a cloak, but not even the darkness can swallow entirely the stark whiteness of his hair and beard. He has broad hands and broad shoulders, built like the tree he is leaning against.
“Such rules are not writ in law,” you reply. “Thus they do not apply at all.”
He throws his head back and laughs. It is rich and resonant, reverberating throughout the forest. The leaves rustle and quiver, and you stifle down the thought that they, too, are laughing.
“The laws of men do not apply here,” he shakes his head. “The laws of the forest are different, Inspector, and you are breaking them.”
You snort. It takes no analytical skill or reasoning to be able to identify you.
“But this forest still recognises a policeman’s uniform,” you point out. “Now identify yourself and tell me what you’re doing here, in the middle of the night.”
His gaze rests on you. He does not speak. You set your jaw more firmly, and waits.
“If you catch me,” he says. He is suddenly in front of you. “I will tell you my name. I will tell you the answers to all the questions you seek.”
He moves quickly, you note. His eyes are very dark.
You are a hunter. You have never backed down from a chase.
“I will catch you,” you declare. “I will bring you to justice, bandit.”
The smile he gives to you is full of secrets etched in the lines around his mouth. Those carved into the corners of his eyes are upturned, and within them you see a mystery that you can almost grasp.
“I am no bandit,” he says. Before you can ask him what he is, then, he smiles.
“Good luck,” he continues, and he is gone.
No, not gone. There, right behind a tree, you see a flash of white.
You give chase.
The forest shrieks. It fades away.
You are standing on a road. Around you are houses: weak, flimsy things, seemingly made of paper, with thatched-straw roofs. They are fire hazards, you think, instincts immediately kicking in.
When you look up, the North Star is gone. The skies are filled with smoke. There is a fire nearby, and it is getting closer and closer to you. You raise a hand to your face – your hand is familiar, but your sleeve is loose, draped over your wrist, and in a shade of blue you have never seen.
“What are you doing, standing there?” A man looms before you. There is no white in his hair, only in a strip of cloth tied around his forehead. You look at him.
Behind him, you see: broad shoulders and strong arms straining as they lift up a piece of wood. It was pinning down a man, who now cries out when he is released.
“Arrest him!” the man before you yells. His name hovers on the tip of your tongue – a ridiculous thing, for you have never seen him before.
“Who is he?” you ask, and you are dizzied by surprise for the second time in as many minutes. The sounds escaping your throats are ones you have never heard before, but you understand them: a strong, innate understanding that speaks of fluency.
Where is the forest? Where are you? You chased that man for answers, and now you only find more questions.
The man before you is staring. “Are you alright?” he asks, taking a step forward. You move away immediately. “He’s the one you’ve been chasing for years.”
No, you want to deny. I only met him a few moments ago.
You have never been a liar. You have never told a lie in your entire life. The words will not come: they taste false, glass-slippery, on your tongue.
Wind whips smoke into your face. It kills the sound. You cannot see his lips.
The name is lost.
Through the grey, dark eyes catch yours. They gleam, cat-bright, and though you cannot see his face, you know he smiles. It’s a knowledge that sits within you, familiar and alien both, like the language you now speak.
He starts to run. You give chase.
Houses rush past you. The fire becomes nothing but a blur. You are running far faster than any human can; still he remains ahead of you.
Hours seem to pass. Seconds seem to pass. Mountains approach as you leave the houses, the city, and the towns all behind. Wind whips through your hair, snaking into the loose robes you wear. There are two swords by your side, and they clack loudly with every step you take, creating a cacophony that rings and rings in your ears.
Finally, he stops.
“Who are you?” you shout.
He is dressed in a robe much like yours, except in black with a design on his back that you have never seen before: two squares interlinked and bound together, with a strange flower you do not recognise within.
“Here, in this time, I am a merchant. I buy, and I sell. I hope to make peace.” The smile he gives you is familiar. You have seen it before, though the Polaris-silver edges are gone.
The sea whispers her song in your ears. The tides are rushing in. The sea breeze wisps between the two of you. The man before you- changes.
The black robe becomes a dull-yellow coat, the white hair turns grey, and the lines around his eyes and mouth lessen. His shoulders are no longer so broad, but are now hunched over, as if carrying burdens he can no longer bear. He takes a step forward, and you hear the jangling of chains.
You know this man, you realise. His name is there, full-formed, on the tip of your tongue. But you do not know its shape.
What is your name, you want to ask, beyond frustrated by all that is inexplicable that surrounds this man. Who are you, really?
But you know, in the same strange way you know things ever since the forest, that he will not answer.
So you take a deep breath instead, squaring your shoulders. The robes you wear are not your own. The post you hold here is one you do not understand. But there is one thing you are sure of: you are a police officer, and he is a criminal you must arrest.
“No one can make peace while on the run,” you declare. Your hand rests on the hilt of one of your swords. You do not know how to use it, but your fingers curl around it, thumb nudging at the guard through some instinct. “Come with me. You are under arrest.”
He smiles at you again. His eyes darken further, and the lines around them deepen and fill with shadows. You inhale, but you cannot breathe back in the words you have already said.
“You have to catch me first,” he says, and runs.
You give chase.
Mountain-trees rustle in the wind. Their scent swallows you whole.
You are standing on a road. It is made of dirt. Men and women walk around you, giving you a wide berth. Their backs are bent, weighed down by heavy shackles around their wrists and ankles. The chains slams into the dirt with their every step, staining the hems of their trousers. Their skins are red beneath the metal.
The sight of them twists at your insides. A familiar bitterness crawls from your throat into your mouth and sits there, heavy, on your tongue.
This time, your sleeve is the green of aging leaves. The cloth feels strangely light on your skin – not linen or wool. The swords by your side are gone. You are holding a shotgun instead. The night skies are full of stars, formed in shapes and constellations that are just beyond your grasp. Their light shines glimmers on the shotgun, and you realise, belatedly, that it’s made of dark metal instead of wood. You are not sure why the shotgun should be wood.
A man comes up to you, striding through the line. The chained ones curve around him, around you; they are crammed together, chains smacking against chains.
“Two have been taken this time,” the man says. The sounds from his mouth are entirely different from what you had heard just barely minutes (hours? days? lifetimes?) before, but they are just as alien, just as familiar. “A woman, and her daughter. He’s gone too far.”
“Who do you mean?” You ask.
“The one you’ve been chasing,” the man says. He looks surprised. “Is the heat getting into you?”
He says your name, but it passes by your ears without your understanding. Perhaps you don’t want one (you don’t deserve it); perhaps you have become too used to being simply ‘you’.
“No,” you say. “I’ll find him.”
You scan this place: the second glance is just as unfamiliar. In the distance, you see factories belching out smoke, grey and dark. The sight tugs at something inside you. The night sky and constant clanging chains disappear. The ground beneath your feet turns into a river; you feel its chill between your toes. There, in the distance, the factory chimneys disappear, replaced by two buildings made of stone. Bells ring, deep and resonant, echoing in your ears. The river whispers her secrets in a language you still cannot understand.
You turn away. There, further in the distance, you see canopies. And you know.
“There,” you say, speaking to yourself more than to the man standing beside you; a bad habit you still cannot break. “He’s over there.”
This time, when you run, you run alone. There’s no one in front of you.
But you have always been alone during the chase. The man ahead never seems to get closer, no matter how brightly the moon shines upon his hair
It takes mere moments for you to reach the forest. You don’t feel winded, but your chest heaves for breath nonetheless; it seems like something you should be doing.
You see him.
He is dressed differently once more: a thin shirt, ragged pants. There is a tied pile of branches on his back, barely broader than his shoulders. His hands are covered with dirt.
(Sobbing like a baby, over and over again: I was a tree pruner in Faverolles. His hands rose and fell, over and over again, as if patting the heads of children with different heights. I was a tree pruner in Faverolles.)
His dark eyes meet yours. “I knew you would come,” he says, and smiles. He picks up another branch, and slips it into the pile on his back. “Just give me a moment more. I need to bring these to someone.”
“You’ve always asked for more time,” you say, which makes no sense, for this is the first he has ever asked for such a thing.
He smiles again. It does not reached his eyes, which are still dark with sorrow.
You have never noticed his eyes until now.
“They don’t deserve to be punished,” he says. He begins to walk, and you helplessly follow. “All they have been trying to do is live.”
The white-haired man brings you into the forest, deep within where the high, full canopies block out the moon and stars. But there is light, nonetheless, a bluish tinge that surrounds you, unlike anything you have seen before. When you open your mouth to take in a deeper breath, the air taste of salt and bitterness.
You see them before he stops you. A woman with her hair shorn so close to the scalp that you can still see patches of scarred skin. She is holding a tiny girl close to her chest. Her breast is bared. The girl’s cheeks hollow, fill, and hollow again. Her small wrist resembles what you think birds’ bones look like.
“The new regime does not allow for whores,” you say, your tongue forming words before you can stop it. “It is a bourgeoisie thing. Bodies belong to the state and should not be bought or sold.”
The woman does not seem to hear you. She strokes over the girl’s hair, and hums tunelessly.
“No, it does not,” the white-haired man says. He walks forward and puts down the pile of twigs next to the woman. His hand, rough and large, rests over her shorn head. When she looks up at him, her smile is a broken thing, made wretched by her two missing teeth.
She does not look at you. She cannot see you.
When the world rocks this time, you are no longer surprised. The sight of her is familiar deep within a place where you suppose your soul is.
The ground turns from dirt to concrete. The bluish tinge disappears, replaced by a warmer light, like candles. She is on her knees in front of you. There are tears streaked all over her face, and her hands claw at your knees.
(I am not a bad woman at bottom. It is not cowardliness and gluttony that have made me what I am.)
“They will not survive without you,” you say. The words are new, but you know them. You know what is happening now. Salt and bitterness fill your mouth.
For long years you have chased and chased, eyes fixed in front of you. But you did not see. You have never seen.
So this is your punishment.
“Go. I won’t arrest you. Not anymore.” Your gun clatters to the ground: a final punctuation.
The white-haired man’s eyes widen. He stares at you. The sorrows and mysteries in the corner of his eyes are gone.
He holds out a hand. “Come with me,” he says. “We can escape this regime together. We can go where no one will find us. We will make for a better life away from chains and shackles.”
You smile. It is lopsided. Your mouth is not used to such a thing.
“No,” you say. You turn away from him, looking out of the forest. There: the factory chimneys, belching smoke. There: men and women, convicts all, and yours to keep guard over, to add more to their numbers.
“My duty is not here.” You raise your arm to point towards the far-off things only you can see. You feel like you are moving through heavy waters.
The waters are thick. “It is over there,” you say, and your own voice sounds distorted to your own ears.
“Surely you see by now,” the white-haired man says. There is desperation in his voice. Or, perhaps, it is merely your imagination. “Surely you understand that you are more than your duty.”
Bending, you pick up the shotgun. The weight of it rests wholly on your wrists.
“I have never been more than my duty,” you say.
You begin to walk, with your back to him. You know, somehow, that he will not attack you, or try to drag you to follow.
When you step out of the forest’s shadows, you hear the rushing of a river. Salt and bitterness fills your mouth.
You are devoured once more.
You are standing on a road. A stone house looms a distance ahead of you, its white cross gleaming. The tip of it seems to touch the North Star. In front of you: a stake made out of wood, with more piled at the bottom. You are wearing a black smock with a white bib. When you take off your hat, you note, dully, that it is tall and pointed.
A man runs up to you as you continue to study the hat. “The witch is gone,” he says. This time, you do recognise the language: English, from across the sea in a land that you have never seen.
It is difficult to not laugh, loud and long and hysterical. Did you not choose correctly? Had you not let him go? Why are you still here, caught within another round?
“He is a white-haired man with dark eyes and broad shoulders,” you say. Your voice echo within your own body, hollow-sounding. “I will find him, and I will bring him back.”
The man looks startled. He nods. “Thank you.”
“Where is the forest?”
“Over there,” he says, pointing westward. “Just between the beach and the town.”
You resist the urge to ask him for the name of the town. There is no need to know. You have your duty, and you will fulfil it.
So you chase once more. You chase, for what else can you do? You have known very little else in your life, after all.
He is waiting for you when you reach the forest. You refuse to look at him, because you have grown tired of chasing, of your strange, circular conversations that lead nowhere. Instead, you look at the forest.
It’s different from the ones you have seen before. The trees have broader trunks, and their canopies reach high up into the skies. The soil below you is darker as well, every grain sharply defined even in moonlight.
No, not moonlight: the same blue-tinged light as before: the light of the moon through water.
You are still not looking at him. Perhaps that is why you are surprised to find your collar grabbed. He pushes you hard against a tree. It creaks under your weight, the sound echoing and echoing, like waters roaring over rapids, like a man’s groan of pain.
The white hair fades away when you look at him, leaving behind dark, short-cropped hair. The scalp is covered with a thick layer of dirt. Salt seems to fall from his hair down to his collar with every breath. When you look into his eyes, your breath trips in your throat.
He is glaring, eyes bright with hatred. You’ve wanted this reaction from him for an age. Yet, now you have it, it seems terribly wrong.
“24601,” you say. You cannot help yourself.
His eyes shutter, and he looks away. “That is not my name,” he says, soft and defeated.
The illusion of the convict fades away, and you are left with nothing again. Only a white-haired man with broad, rough hands and a hundred faces.
You do not know his name. You do not know your own. You search for frustration within yourself, anger, but all you can find is resignation.
“I should be drowned by now,” you say.
“You should be,” he says. His eyes shine with their own light despite the darkness. They are terribly dark. His skin is pale. It is not blue. “But you are not.”
“Why?” you ask.
“I don’t know,” he says. He hesitates. “I know only that I cannot let you.”
Of course. You close your eyes. You can no longer take the sorrow in his gaze. “I don’t want your mercy,” you say. Your mouth is dry and every word tastes of ash. “I have no need for it.”
“It is not mercy to do what is right,” he says. His hands leave your shoulders, stepping backwards. The wind blows between the two of you, smelling of salt and bitterness.
When you fall, your knees sink into the dark soil. Water seeps through your clothing despite the layers. You dig your fingers through the grains. They do not belong to a forest.
A river, you think, and you hear the roar of rapids once more in your ears.
You hear a sound. Fingers wrap around your wrist. You open your eyes to see him kneeling in front of you. The breath from his mouth is cool and sweet.
“Come with me,” he urges. “Come with me to a world where we can both live. A world without burdens, or chains, or judgments.”
His finger rests above your pulse. You wonder if he can feel it racing.
“There is no such world,” you say. The weight in your heart makes the statement true. “I am hunter and you are prey. You must always be ahead of me, or else you will be in chains.”
“It does not need to be that way,” he says. He sounds terribly earnest. “We can find another path. One where we can walk together as two men, without need for names.”
You have chased him for years. Whether sword or gun or chain, you have held it all above his head. Yet now he offers you freedom.
You turn away.
“I do not know who you are,” you say. Surely this man has a name. Surely he has a true face, far buried beyond the hundred he has shown you so far. Surely one of them is true. But you do not know which. “I do not know who I am.”
“We can find out,” he says.
Rough calluses brush across your cheeks. Your eyes snap open, and you grab onto his hands, staring at them. There are secrets there writ within the dark, puckered skin on his wrists, on the hard shells formed over his knuckles, on the warmth of his skin.
You look at his face. There they are again: the shadows and mysteries, etched into the lines beside his eyes. When you let go of his hands, you reach out for them.
The lines are warm. They twitch as he tries to smile for you. There is only skin beneath your hands.
(Then you shall do whatever you like with me.
I will wait for you here.)
When the dishonest speaks the truth, the honest must tell a lie. You know this now, and the urge to laugh comes upon you again.
He stands. You remain on your knees, looking at him.
The silence stretches between the two of you. You avert your eyes. You wait. You cannot speak: you have never learned how to ask, from one man to another. You have only known how to command a convict, or beg a mayor.
“I will go with you,” you finally say to his knees. Your tongue is thick and the words are difficult, almost too large to fit into your mouth. You swallow.
“Only to know who you are, and who I am.”
His hand tilts your face up. He smiles. His eyes are bright and dark both: Polaris glittering on a moonless night.
“Come with me,” he says. His fingers are half-curled inwards. They tremble.
You take his hand.
The forest fades. The last sight you have of this world is the night sky, spreading outwards infinitely. Filled with stars, brilliant-bright.
You are in the forest. The sun has started to rise.
Have you chosen wrongly again? You look around you.
The trees are over-large. There are faces in them, you realise. Faces twisting in pain, bark yawning apart to form toothless mouths. You clap your hands over your ears, but you are too late: you cannot stop the shrieks from digging through your skin, your nerves, and imprinting themselves into your very bones.
You stumble backwards and fall to the ground. Your hands sink into the soil. It is red, and wet. You stare at them
A hand is thrust beneath your gaze. Broad and rough-knuckled, it is familiar to you. You tear your eyes away from the blood-soaked ground.
The white-haired man with the hundred faces smiles at you.
“Come with me,” he says. His hand remains steady in the air.
Wolves howl in the distance. You have followed him, but his name is still lost to you.
The trees scream again, echoing and echoing, terrible in their hollowness. What do you have to lose? Besides, you have never been a man who goes back on his word.
Once more, you take his hand.
The next breath: you are underwater. You claw for the surface, gasping. Your mouth is full of river, a salt so strong it is bitter. Its roars pounds in your ears like a heartbeat.
Strong hands with thick fingers grab hold of you. You are caught. You cannot begin to resist as you are dragged away from the currents. You cling onto the body that has hold of you. The shoulders and arms beneath yours are broad and terribly familiar. You are not surprised.
The shores hit your knees. You gasp, filthy river water pouring out of you. Your mouth tastes of the gutter and your clothes carry the stench. You drip filth and yet you feel clean, as if all the dirt is not the river’s, but yours.
Notre Dame looms ahead of you. Its high towers block out the view of the Palace of Justice. You try to laugh, but gags instead, lungs rebelling to expel more water.
A hand rests on your back. White flashes at the corner of your eyes. You turn.
Despite the dirt-coat in your mouth and your drowned lungs, the name comes to you as easily as your own. Now, in this place, in this world and time that is yours, you know his name.
“Jean Valjean,” you say. “Jean Valjean.”
“Yes,” he says. “It is I.”
You grab hold of his wrist. Beneath your thumb, his pulse thrums, strong and steady. It envelops you: it is the scent of mountain-trees lingering in your nose; it is the salt and bitterness that sits on your tongue; it is the dark, wet soil beneath your knees; it is the cool air you breathe.
“I have caught you,” you say.
He smiles. The night sky spreads out its wings, infinite and beautiful. The stars caught in the lines at the edge of his eyes are dim with sorrow.
Your hand rises without your permission. Your thumb strokes over those lines. You are not a man of imagination, but sorrow loosens its grip at the touch of your hands. Tears fall into your palms, more precious than pearls.
“I have caught you,” you say again. You, whose voice has always been strong and clear and righteous, find yourself trembling. “I have caught you, Valjean.”
“Yes,” he says. His thumb rests on the side of your eyes as well. When his lips touches your brow, his tears flow down his face, and becomes yours. The weight within your chest loosens.
You draw in breaths touched by his throat. They seep into your lungs and warm your bones.
“You have caught me, Javert.”
He returns you your name as if it is nothing, as if you have not been searching it all this while. You tip your head up, and you cup his cheeks with both hands.
“You have found me,” you say, barely aware of the change of words. “And so have I.”
The river’s stench disappears. The air is crisp and cool. The sun, you see, is rising. Sunlight takes its place,
Valjean smiles. The sun rises, and haloes his pale hair.
“I see you now,” you say.
No more a hundred faces, a hundred names. Only one. Just a man.
Behind you, around you, you hear the choirs begin to sing.