Cookie pulled a cigar from his pocket to savor the picture he had constructed for himself. After some effort he got the cigar burning and continued stepping through the foliage, feeling the emptiness and ferocity of the forest on his one side and the dignity of the camp on the other, as the tip of his ash glowed and dimmed with his breath. He passed to the opposite side of the camp, stepping over a patch of sticky currant, when suddenly a gentle scraping sound caught his ear. He paused and peered into the trees but there was nothing to be seen: only the remains of an evening meal left out on a fallen log where a man had apparently taken his supper and then forgotten to return his plate.
Cookie was bothered by this-the forgotten plate invited predatory animals and more generally violated the higher discipline of the corps- until it occurred to him that he had not yet located any main dish for the following day's supper, and furthermore that the company's flour and cornmeal and drippings of fat were entirely depleted. He was a miserable failure in his duties as a cook, he realized, and there was no one at all to share the blame with. All at once, Cookie was at odds with himself again.
Mechanically, Cookie proceeded over to the tin plate, reaching downward to grasp its lip between his thumb and fingers. He pulled it toward himself, and was surprised to find the plate recoil from his tug. He pulled again and it recoiled again, as if held in place by a powerful magnet. Cookie stood there, staring at the plate, while icy fear ran through him.
Curled around the rim of the plate from the opposite side of the log was a human finger, latching it in place like a buttonhook. Cookie inhaled on his cigar sharply, illuminating the darkness with a feeble red light. Behind the fallen log hung a pair of hollowed-out eyes, and beneath them a chapped mouth hanging partially agape. Below that was a wide, stubbled chin, and a man's naked collarbone forming a distinct strut across a hairy, well-formed chest. On either side of the chest were arms that tapered to strong wrists, and up top again was a fuzzy bundle of knotted blond hair, pulled back in a messy ponytail, filled with burrs and twigs. Cookie assembled all these elements into an image: a naked man, with matted hair and stunned blue eyes, crouching behind a log in a rain forest in the middle of the night.
Cookie's cigar dropped from his mouth and hissed out on the moist forest floor.
"Hello?" he asked in his regular voice. "Are you all right?"
"Hungry," the naked man replied, and then quickly, "No need to call anyone."
The man stood a head or so taller than Cookie, clasping his hands over his naked body, clearly disoriented by the sudden meeting. He picked uncertainly at a nearby mulberry leaf. He merely wanted to know the time, he said, and Cookie told him. Then the man sat down on the stump, legs crossed at the knee, and eventually spoke again: "I guess your Cookie has retired for the evening."
"I doubt it," Cookie replied.
The stranger seemed to struggle with himself then, muttering doubtfully, "Don't suppose you could call him out here a minute? Quietly?"
Cookie felt the time had arrived to identify himself: "I am the Cookie."
The man coughed and whispered to himself some more, staring out into the forest. His profile was limned in moonlight, his nose turned up at the end, his chin strong, and his brow open. Although the resemblance was slight, something in its melding of features oddly reminded Cookie of himself. Cookie had small eyes and a beak-like nose, a nest of black curls exploding from his head, and a physique like an old scarecrow, but something in the man's face, the purse of the lips, perhaps, or the way their color rose from the chalky whiteness of his skin, seemed to reflect him nonetheless, and Cookie interpreted it as the mark of some latent nobility.
From The Half-Life by Jonathan Raymond, Chapter 1, pages 1-17. Copyright 2004 by Jonathan Raymond. All rights reserved. This excerpt is reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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