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The Longest Way Round is the Shortest Way Home.


He paused before opening the door of the laboratory. Was this the place where he would at last find the understanding and knowledge that he had been seeking for so long? Summoning his courage, he turned the handle and entered. Somehow the room was much larger than it had seemed from the outside, and it was filled with objects he had not expected to find there. His eye was drawn to the centre of the room, where he discovered a small hazel tree on a plinth. Were its branches bare, or leafy, did they have blossom or nuts? He was unable to tell, at one moment he seemed to see the tree in one season, and as he looked further it seemed to change.

He began walking towards the tree. Just as he was almost within touching distance he found his way blocked by a table. He began to clamber up the table when there was a sudden hiss. A sinuous shape uncoiled itself from under the tree, and struck at him. Startled, he looked down, and saw that there was a large tabby cat standing on the table, with its fur on end and its claws extended. He backed down, and decided to turn left and skirt the table.

The tables and benches prevented him from getting any closer. Instead, he found himself forced to go round the tree, and then their pattern drove him back nearly to the door of the room. Once again, the objects in his way forced him to turn, and it was only after going all the way round the outside of the room that he was able to move a short distance in once more.

Would he ever reach what he was now seeking? It all seemed much more difficult than he had expected. And surely he had had no intention, when he decided to take this new appointment, of spending so much time trying to reach a tree. What had happened to the thirst for scientific knowledge that had first led him to this place?

He continued walking, now being forced round again in the opposite direction from his last circuit. At one point, he had to draw himself in to be as thin as possible. Even so, his elbow caught a test‑tube that tinkled musically as he brushed it. It gave off a smell that reminded him of his childhood visits to his uncle’s farm. He saw once more the brindled cows in the byre, and the horses in the fields.

Another turn brought a slight touch to his head. Looking round, he saw that he had knocked against a balloon, which now spun off towards the tree. A bundle of laths suspended from the ceiling forced him to duck to avoid them. On the table to his right a beryl sparkled.

After many twists and turns he reached the plinth at last. The tree was heavy with ripe nuts. He reached out, picked a bunch, cracked them, and ate the sweet kernels.

Wood and Water 31, Spring 1990
© Daniel Cohen

(This piece came out of a writing workshop led by Hilary Llewellyn Williams and Tony Padfield. We were asked to choose several words which we especially liked, and then write a piece inspired by one of them. My word is never mentioned here, but several of the objects are echoes or anagrams of parts of the word, and its presence can be felt throughout the story.)

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