A cigarette, between knobbly old fingers. A tiny thread of red promise slowly curls in its tip.
The young man stands beside the cafe table. He smells of the rain outside. The old man arches an eyebrow. It grotesquely contorts his lean, wizened face.
"Is your name Ash?" the young man repeats.
The old man draws on his cigarette. Its promise bursts into crimson life, illuminates his mahogany smile. He gestures a welcome. Opposite him, the young man sits...
And the light changes, as when you step from sunlight into the shade. Mighty trees seem to rise from the gnarled oak floor of the cafe, through the smoke yellowed ceiling, up into a world of possibilities. High in the canopy, dark wings clap faintly. The young man gasps, grabs at the table to steady himself as the world whorls. Coffee spills. Nearby, a ghost eyed woman looks up from her sudoko, a hollow stare.
An old hand reaches out and clasps reassurance.
"My name is Ash," says the old man. His voice is warm honey shot through with crumbs of toast.
The young man relaxes a little, but his fearful eyes are still restless. The walls have become transparent, like a memory of a dream. Through them he can see the dark forest, furtive shadows seem to flit between the pillars of trees.
"I had no idea." The young man's voice is full of wonder.
The old man's leathery hand tightens its friendly grip. A lazy curl of smoke rises from his cigarette. Its tobacco fragrance mingles with the peaty smell of the woods.
"You have the Sight, young man. It's your inner eye that sees the forest. I've been waiting for you to visit me. You've been seeking me for two years, and now you are here. Perhaps you should have a coffee?"
The old man called Ash signals to the waitress, and she walks over carrying a coffee jug and a clean cup. The young man watches with fascination as she pours the pungent drink. He can see her quite clearly, yet through her he can also see a clump of birches. Their silvery trunks glisten eerily in the light of a ghostly, watery sun. The waitress leaves. Steam from the young man's hot coffee drifts in an otherworldly breeze.
"The world you know is a skin over the real world. This place is the Perilous Forest. To sit at this table is to delve deep into the land of dreams." Ash pauses to draw breath, and sips at his own coffee.
"You have a question, lad. Ask it!"