Vernal Equinox 2003
HE FOREST WAS NOT ancient, but it was older than anyone could remember.
Elizabeth stood by the kitchen bay window, her head tilted pensively, looking out. She stared for a long time into the dull glow of mid-day, seeing nothing. Her gaze came to the wishing well by the back fence. Years had cracked the red crossbeam, lost the crank handle and bucket. Leaves and silt had settled a dirty bed under the stale water. A patio store sale item ten years ago, the well didn't venture beneath the soil, but only as deep as the one-piece basin of plastic faked bricks. False, dead wishes there.
Mom came in. She took her vitamins and her oyster shell calcium. She spoke from the closet, where she kept her purse, announcing she was going down to the office.
Elizabeth looked past the wishing well and the back fence, past the remnant wisps of prairie tall grass. Not twenty feet beyond their yard began the low, rough tillage of landscaped earth. The sign down the block promised the new housing project by November. For now, there was only the scar of trampled dirt, a flat and dry field with a road fragment dead-ending in the emptiness. Void of houses and trees, the area was home now to four giant yellow earthmover machines sitting silently in the distance. Beyond the ugly lot was the forest.
"Your might want to start on your homework." The car keys made numb music in the foyer. The front door closed.
The forest. Giant trees.
When the phone rang, she only shifted, slumping against the window frame. The third ring was the last. The house paused. Dad called from their bedroom. It was for her. She let him walk down the hall, ask her name, get the kitchen phone and stretch the cord to her.
"It's Kathleen," he said, holding the receiver.
The forest. She had never noticed.
She accepted the phone with sense of duty that almost hid the reluctance. But as she lifted the receiver slowly to her ear, she noticed herself wishing in the briefest moment: that he stop her, ask if she was all right, mention that she looked dazed. She was daydreaming, and didn't hear herself say hello. In the dream, there was soft moonlight outside, and Dad reached over and cupped his hand over the mouthpiece, pointing out the window, smiling that he saw it too. She knew what he would say. And when he spoke in the dream, it was with a musical voice she never knew he had. The forest, he was saying, Is hundreds of stirring forevers.
"I am totally stagnant," the phone said, "What are we gonna do today?"
Elizabeth blinked and the dream was gone.
"Mom took the car," Elizabeth answered automatically, but cordial, surprised she could respond. "Some crucial proposal thing that's got to be done by Monday." She was functioning in a daze, and on social autopilot.
"Crap. I don't have a car either. What can we do?" Kathleen paused. "Want to rent movies?"
"Not for another few months' worth of weekends, thanks."
"Maybe I'll just nap. I was out late last night. And we can't get anywhere anyway."
"Bikes," Elizabeth said, but didn't know why.
"It's almost raining," Kathleen whined.
Dad had a newspaper opened. He nudged her shoulder. Insistent, he tapped a circled advertisement. Elizabeth took the paper from him and pretended to study the announcement, pretended not to react, so he would stop trying to get her attention. She read only the title ad, not the details. He held up his thumb, made the "okay" symbol, smiled at her, and left for the living room.
"Book sale," she said.
"What?" Complete disgust in one word. At the vagueness. At the implication. "Where? How will we--"
"Get your coat. Wait on your front lawn." Elizabeth tossed the paper on the table. She was already moving to hang up.
"Can you get a car?"
"We're going to run all the way there. Through back yards, down sidewalks, over hedges!"
"It's wet, Liz."
"Be out front. Or I'll throw rocks as I run by."
"Books? Leeza, why--"
Elizabeth hung up.
She ran for the front door. A coat hit her in the face. She stopped. Dad was sitting on the couch, looking at her. She looked back at him, and, for a second she felt a tease of wonder and curiosity. She wanted to stay in one second, and wondered why in the next. Before she could think, she was out the door.
It was nearly three miles to the Southeast Branch Library, and less over fences. Broken minutes stretched as her breath roared inside, and she ran on, cutting across corner yards.
Oh, there had to be something... one book...
She didn't stop at Kathleen's driveway, like her friend's face expected. Kathleen caught up. Then, after a few blocks of full running, she lagged back and walked. Elizabeth ran straight into the library, up to the second floor, and stopped at the sale table.
AFTER THE SEARCH, THERE were two worthy books--one for each of them to go Dutch. Discoveries made in the overflow boxes, underneath the long sale tables. Elizabeth found them both, while Kathleen made two trips to the restroom and watched some boys at the periodicals hit each other on the arm and giggle as they glanced back at her. The cover was nearly falling off of one book, its binding flaking old fragments of glue. Two books on mythologies. Celtic and Greek pantheons. Subjects tasted in junior high English classes, hinted by readings, lost and forgotten in years of growth, the body changing.
"Gods." Elizabeth closed her eyes when she touched the yellowed pages. "Do you know gods?"
"Well..." Kathleen hesitated. She looked at her friend with renewed consideration, maybe of her sanity. "Not personally, no." This wasn't what she had had in mind. The book she had been handed dropped carelessly to her side. "There's church tomorrow," she said, like it had significance.
"But none today." Wide and hard, Elizabeth's eyes cut around the silence. "Not this Saturday, under these clouds, this spring." She went to the paying table.
THE GATE TRIED TO latch behind them, but swung out into the yard. Elizabeth went to the wishing well. It seemed the right place, Elizabeth had said, and it was all they had. Kathleen fell onto the grass. She put the book on her stomach and it rose and tilted while she breathed with impatience, until it slid off. She sat up. She rubbed her ankle. She picked at the cuticle on her third finger.
"Can't we go inside? A couch would be nice right now. And some caramel corn."
Elizabeth was looking away. She glanced into the well once, not really looking. Her book was tight in her arms. A page corner curled over her wrist, fluttered. Her detached silence held her, Kathleen's breathing settled.
The old forest was deep.
"Now," Elizabeth said, very suddenly, "Open your book and read a name."
"Just a name?" An absent question, lurking without inflection just below the surface of mockery and apathy.
"Read any hero or demigod or legend you open to."
Sitting up, Kathleen felt her back. The grass was wet, and her hand touched the damp stains. Frowning, she tried to look at the seat of her pants. "I'll have to use your dryer. Or borrow some clothes."
Elizabeth shot a glance that she had never used on her friend. She was surprised she had it. She was surprised it worked.
"All right, yeah--read one. Got ya..." Kathleen set the book on her lap. "First name?" The book of Celtic Mythology had been a dollar and a quarter. She hadn't wanted it, she'd said, not even for that price. But they both had to by a book. It was part of the spell. Elizabeth had insisted, turning quiet heads, rustling the harness of library silence. Why? as Kathleen had taken out her change. Gods, Elizabeth had said, All dead. Not for long! Spring has spells. Spring is life. Life! And she slammed her book on the pay table with a boom.
The binding crackled. Wind tried, piecemeal, to close the book. Kathleen slapped her hand down to keep the page. "Blah blah blah..." she whispered, scanning down the opposite side.
Elizabeth thought of kicking her. More and more lately, her best friend needed it, just a thump right above the ear. Her hands shook. Only a name was needed. The web between her thumb and finger ached in cramp from holding the book in a pinch. She lifted the dog-eared pages and clasped them with both arms. "Do you know any mythology?"
"That stuff we read in seventh grade?"
"Yes. There was some then."
"But that was Greek. You got the Greek one. I don't know ... this stuff."
Elizabeth didn't offer to trade. She smiled, not asking if Kathleen would know a name when she read it. Names were lore.
"Herne." Kathleen said. She looked up in triumph, then back down. "Herne the Hunter. And it says--"
"And--stop!" Elizabeth kicked out, dropped her foot on the page. Kathleen--("Hey!")--barely pulled her hand away. "One name. That's all."
"How are we supposed to know about him if we don't read about him? The name doesn't tell us anything." Kathleen massaged her finger. "Why are we even doing this?"
"The name is enough. I know some ... about him. The name's a birth, see ... brings ... it brings ..."
"Brings what?" Kathleen didn't answer. She pushed the book from her lap, and stood. "Awb. Scure. Ih. Tee," she thought aloud. Then she noticed her best friend looking away. "What are you doing?"
What did Elizabeth know? She knew about a bass guitar player for a famous band. Something she saw on a music video channel, or read in a glossy gossip magazine. The player who didn't need a pick, and had worn a hole in his thumb where he slapped the heavy strings. He had to fill the hole with super glue before every concert. This she knew because, after years of publicly denouncing said famous band's music and its "disgusting egotistical man-members," she had suddenly decided that said bass player was a "oddly attractive, in a gritty sort of way" and subsequently seemed to learn a new piece of trivia about him at an hourly rate. What could she do? She could open a supply box of soda cups and lids without a knife. What had she brought from the younger times of hourless afternoons? Her allowance had increased, until she had gotten her driver's license and the fast food job. What could she make? She had done a few paintings at her grandma's over last summer, and had once remarked that pottery seemed "neat ... sometimes." She could make fast meximelts and refrito-wrappies and cinna-twists, and, on a dare, U-turns. A few weeks ago she had made a rum & coke. Elizabeth realized she knew where all of these would go, and how far.
Elizabeth opened her book and took a needless glance.
"I've never read any K--Kelt... Keltic mythology," Kathleen was saying, "I told you you had the easy book." Her voice was soaked in loss, sorrowful, and ended with a streak of sarcasm.
Closing her eyes, smiling with a kind of purring rattle rolling up her throat, Elizabeth mouthed one syllable. She walked past Kathleen, towards the house. By the back stairs, she spun around in a slow dance-like step, the book as her partner.
Beyond the ugly lot...
"Now what?" Kathleen demanded.
"It's over? Are we done?"
"We wait. Let it fill. And twist inside."
"Until what?" Kathleen's head shimmied with impatience and attitude.
...the old forest breathed.
"They'll grow. Or they could rip away. Or fade." Elizabeth hesitated, grinding her teeth aloud. "No." She stamped her foot, mind changed. "They'll grow." She nodded. Pleased, she jumped from the stairs.
"Stop!" Kathleen stood, holding her mouth for words to surface. "Stop. Stop stop stop stop. What the hell did we...? I don't... I mean, I am so lost." Elizabeth waited. Very briefly. "Well... I want to see them now. I'm not going to wait."
The old forest was deep. For birds and foxes it rose in a huge enigmatic composure, reaching its greenness for miles with thousands of arms swaying with a daunting calm.
The breeze that whispered and moved the trees had stopped, now raking the yard with silence, and Elizabeth looked into it. "Now?" she said. "You want to see?" Her stare of offense made Kathleen's eyes dart away. How long would it take? There was no time. Just belief. Potency.
"Ooo," Kathleen dropped her book and crossed her arms. "I can't wait." Her voice fluttered.
Would they be ready? Histories and statues and stories, rendered and bold. With faith. And want. Lightning, flutes, music, dance, dogs and fire. Oh yes.
"Yes." Falling into a run, Elizabeth launched through the yard, grabbed at her friend's sleeve and pulled her along in a surprised stumble. At the fence, Elizabeth planted one hand and leaped over. Kathleen bumped into the chain links, stepped back and clambered over. She started to jog.
"What was yours?" Kathleen yelled from behind.
"Pan. The forest god."
Kathleen grunted with an attempt at interest, "Huh?"
"Shepherd piper. Goat legs--you know?--a satyr."
"Yeah, Leeza. I've heard of that one," Kathleen complained. She fell further behind as they ran past the huge yellow backhoes, up and down bulldozed piles, then over the open development, jumping caterpillar track ridges. "Where are we going?"
Elizabeth did not answer, for the forest grew towards them, a misty greened profundity.
The forest. Like the ocean, it had a silent, binding magic running deep in its size and years. Like the ocean, what could die there? Sea turtles lived nearly twice any human lifetime.
They walked side by side. Elizabeth would say nothing. Her head moving anxiously, she seemed to be listening to the trees. Dead branches bent under their feet into the mud. Leaves sealed to their shoes.
"Is this some game you played without me?" Kathleen asked. "Have you been out to these woods before? Didn't you move to Glenwood Estates when your mom got that job? Last year?"
Elizabeth watched a tree swing by. This, she knew--thought she knew--was the most naïve kind of witchcraft. Childhood innocence made its own spells. If you missed your chance on playgrounds, in tree houses--you had to go back ... couldn't you?
Kathleen bumped her hip, jarring only a short look of surprise. "Are you going to tell me about this Herne guy? You said you would."
"He's a hunter. He has dogs. No more to tell."
"I know he's a hunter. You let me read that far before you stomped on my hand."
"Books were just a reminder."
"Of what we didn't know?" Kathleen made an exasperated sigh. "I don't know how you expect me to play along with this ... this whatever. I'm lacking details here, Leeza."
Elizabeth walked faster, pulling ahead on the damp trail. She ran, following the winding path of mud and black trees. Kathleen stopped, then she ran after.
In a clearing, roofed by reaching branches, she caught up with Elizabeth, who was slowly spinning in place, whispering, and swaying. The voice was a hiss, racing and pitching--not Elizabeth's monotone--a music through teeth, lost in the wind lifts of flicking leaves.
As though the rising song could not be contained in whisper, it pulled back Elizabeth's lips. "What are you saying?" slipped into her ears, and was broken by the song. Io Io Io chanted inside. Each strand of her hair pulled tight. The pain descended, rocking her skull like drums. She pounded her legs to keep the rhythm. Io Io. Arms out, she spun, faster, whipping, to lift, to dance, to break loose. Somehow complete. Io.
Whipping, stamping, spinning. Turning to find, clawing and seeking with the eyes. Io Io. Her hair was the tall field grass, rolled by waves of wind. Her arms were the trees. Io Io.
Her jaw trembled, and the voice came from deeper than her throat. Elizabeth wasn't stumbling. The spinning only mounted. The mud spattered away from her dance. Covered, nearly to the knees in the brown-gray, her feet did not slow. They stamped and sent. She spun and cried out. Kathleen covered her ears, yelling, and lost her cry in the weird chant.
Io Io Io.
Stop it. Stop! Quit it. This is crazy. What are you saying?! Ten minutes. How can you keeping doing that?! What are you doing?
Io Io! Great Pan! Io Io Io!
"Stop. Quit it, Leeza. Enough already. You're scaring me."
Io, Pan! Great Pan! Io--
"Quit it! Leeza!"
Their arms caught. Kathleen twisted, stumbled, slipped, and flipped onto her back, spattering mud out around her. She winced. She groaned. "God," she said, leaning up, her hair matted and wet. Mud pulled at her jacket. Her whispers were full of seriousness now. "What the hell were you doing?" She reached out for Elizabeth to help pull her up. Elizabeth was slowly looking around the clearing, squinting into the trees. Kathleen stood herself up, wiping her muddied palm on her pant leg. "I mean--what the hell, Leeza?"
Her chest heaved fast like racer's breath. Elizabeth was smiling as she looked, clenching and releasing her fingers.
"Leeza? Hey, Leez." Kathleen waved a hand between them. "What were you saying? Are you okay? You look baked."
" 'm alright. Waiting," said Elizabeth, "...ting."
"I'm not going to ask what for. You're being all cryptic."
Kathleen looked past Elizabeth, over the shoulder, where her hair had tangled behind her head.
Elizabeth looked at her friend, and saw her now. She looked eagerly into the eyes--and saw they were eager too, like the gift they had become. Eager, then fevered, afraid. Something reflected there. Jealousy tightened Elizabeth's throat. Her friend was seeing him first.
Kathleen's lids pulled wide. The pupils flashed out, full black, then contracted. Then the entire iris was swallowed in white, then red. He had come. He was behind Elizabeth. And Kathleen saw. And was not ready.
Scintillating. He was song and blood. He, forest and heart.
Turning so quickly, sending spittle from her lip in a frantic string, turning from the sight of him, not lifting her foot from the mud, Kathleen's ankle snapped. The crack woke birds, who jumped and rose, flapping. She took like them, racing way. One of her feet did not work, collapsed her leg to the side. Run.
She fell. Pushing off a tree, she was up on one leg. She did not stop screaming. Him. Run.
Elizabeth watched her go.
"Io," she whispered, and turned.
Bringing her gaze around, vision grayed into a long action, as she felt the presence build and sharpen, about to reveal. He should be tall, and quiet, a face of ages.
"No," he said, freezing her, "Not yet, not yet." His voice sounded more like a boy's than she expected, but laced with owl cries, echoing off trees. "Do not look on me yet." Just a slight turn of her head further and she'd see him in her peripheral vision. "Your friend there, maybe her husband's name was Lot, oh maybe?" He giggled recklessly. "I am sorry. It is not funny." His voice, nervous? He was actually uncomfortable. He trotted around behind her. "So you are not yet tempted," he let her know. Didn't he trust her? "Yours was the voice that brought me. But do not look on me yet." He paused. Apprehensive? "Your eyes are not ready to see."
"No," she agreed, thinking of Kathleen. She was talking to a god. One she had always loved. Her stomach floated.
"I am sorry, oh sorry."
She doubted the dream now, disbelieved in magic. There was a bad mixture. Her faith, her imagination, or whatever, felt unformed. And Kathleen hadn't exactly been eager. "She didn't believe. She didn't know." He smelled of cedar and dew. Oh, it was him. Io. "I didn't tell her," she said. It was something only known. She thought of the world, and was almost sorry she had brought him.
"Look then, but only when your eyes are ready. And only so."
What had Kathleen seen? Bones only partially-fleshed? Burning eyes? Needle teeth? Claws? Probably. All right, she thought, yes. He wasn't done. She hadn't decided yet. Why did she want him here? He was a god, albeit a lost one. Did she want that? She wanted something lost, something never felt, she wanted a friend. It was a giant wish. Big as a forest. But it was what she wanted. And it was the truth.
She was ready, she knew. And turned.
"Hi. I'm Elizabeth."
"Great greetings to you, Elizabeth."
Finally seeing him, she actually held her breath. His physique was defined, but sinewy, almost adolescent. There was no boundary where the animal part of him began, and she wondered a moment how long she stared at his hooves, the fetlocks, the thick and coarse hair that covered his goat legs and thinned so gradually into navel and chest. Indeed, her eyes had moved quicker over the darkest and thickest area of his lower hair, and her mind did not catch the fleeting tingle in her own loins, or recognize it when it faded. Awe took over again, when she suddenly understood who he was and his reality, here, with her. Yes, here was the moonlight dancer before her, a living icon of poetry and celebration and frenzy. That his horns were such small, gentle features, that he was patient and innocent with her--nothing like the harsh, juvenile, mischievous angry-goat creature she'd been taught from junior high flash cards and brief myth outlines of the Arcadian figure--he was a refinement of that icon. Just as she had hoped. Exactly as she had hoped, she now realized. She was almost suspicious. One that altered its own appearance--was that a god, or... a changeling, a dopplegänger.
"Simply for you," he said. Again, the owls in his voice.
"You are my bringer. You are the belief," he gestured to his entire self with both hands as though his whole body was strangely new. "...because because it is what you wanted."
She didn't know how to respond. She shook her head. She was having trouble asking something.
"I see your thinkings, yes I do," he explained for her, "Is what you wanted." He held up his hand. "But it scares you too, I now see--oh eeeeee!--and you think twice." He sank, folding onto his knees, gesturing down before him. "Do sit," he invited, knowing too well she needed calming.
She sat. Yes, second thoughts. She wanted him, but not with a key to her head.
"It is so done," he assured, "I am out then, of your thoughts."
"Good," she said, opening her eyes.
"Neither then, any love?" He sighed, even winked at her. "What shame."
"You said you were out!" She reached suddenly forward, maybe to hit him, stopped.
"But I am." He caught her hand. "That was easy to read, inside or out." He released her, and his hand settled like a butterfly landing. "Without though, it is all right. I don't have to love you. To live again, to feel the forest..."
"Prove you're out," she said, almost bratty.
"Oh, shit of a pixie." He rolled his cinnamon eyes, then pointed them right at her. "You know I'm in there no longer, no long."
"Yes. Yes, okay." Would he continue to change if she wished it? She hoped not.
They looked at each other a moment.
"A secret for you though, I've got--" He leaned in. "Love dies not."
"Away with you!" She pushed him back, did a backward somersault herself. "No smooching allowed!" she cried, trying to be sincere, knowing how silly it came out. She thought of Leda then, and Zeus's violence with her. She was ready to flee, though she knew she couldn't outrun him.
"You trust me not?"
"You said you were out of my head."
"But I am. I can see you've no trust." He sat back, and waited. Like she would do. Or wanted him to. He didn't pat the ground and cock his eye at her. He didn't play a charm song on his pipes. "I have come to be again," he said. "You are my bringer, and I am here. But now, you question."
She was still crouched, ready to run. Wetness seeped under her collar and down her neck. She realized that mud covered her entire back, and had to laugh. The laughter calmed her, and she just sat again, spattering more mud. "I'm sorry," she said.
"No more apologies."
"No sappy romance."
"Agreed," they said in unison.
She went back and sat by him, very close. Their thighs touched, so there was trust. "Tell me a story," she said.
He jumped up, trotted around, and settled in front of her. He saw their knees weren't touching, and slid forward, crushing leaves. "I'll tell you a story," he said, glancing, having to ignore the contact. Now theirs was the touch that said what they would be to each other. The flirting was over and they could be equal and honest now. Until what might happen, did so. "I'm still tired," he said, "After so long in the ... in that ... stillness. A long waiting. Trapped in an empty deadness, not dead. Anxious. Waiting." He shook it out of his head. Nodded to apologize. It was gone.
"No more of that. You asked for a story." He held open palms by her face. They smelled like honey. "I would have your eyes, Elizabeth." Where the gesture didn't startle her, the request did. His ensuing calm gave her trust. She knew it was one of very few days of magic. Anymore.
She pushed away his hands to do it herself. She didn't have to dig or pry. There wasn't any pain. They seemed to know, and slid out. When they touched her hands, she was instantly blind, and panicked. She was in the dark with two eggs or marbles in her hands. She panicked. Then, she knew that was natural with him. It was part of his name. He had begun that state of being. It made her chuckle. He laughed with her, and the fear left.
For a moment, she heard the forest. The music of birds. The roar of beetles. The chorus of trees.
"This is the story," he said.
Somewhere, she felt him close his hands over her hands, over her eyes. Then he slipped them into his satchel, and closed his own. "This is the story..."
"And the story is this," she finished.
An impatient sigh. Elizabeth didn't want to say it. She knew he was waiting. "I didn't like it," she said into the nothing, trying to blink. It wasn't just blindness. It was a between. The mind was waiting. There was no body. "I don't understand," she said, "But I don't want to. He wasn't you. If he ever was. I don't want to equate him with you. He's what they keep telling me to believe. To the point I almost have to. And if they make me, then I almost want..." There was just the blackness. She could barely hear him. She wanted another story, a better one. "I almost want to reject him if he is real. If that's not enough--I almost want something else, maybe in spite--just for now, I'm young--something else ... some god that doesn't really exis--"
She heard him gasp, and stopped herself. What if she had said it? Would he disappear? "I'm so sorry. Oh I'm s..." she breathed. She shook her head, as if it would help.
"It is all right." He was sincere. She heard him let out a breath. "The story was..." he looked away and said the last word into the wind, nearly lost. "... legend."
"What does that mean? Did you meet Jesus? Was he story or history?" She didn't expect any answers, maybe because of what he was. Then, as easily, she expected one; or a suggestion, because of what he was to her. She waited. No answers came. Fingernails tapped hooves. Then she was angry. What right did he have to be complacent with her? She wanted to kick him. Who needs this stress? she thought. But there was nowhere to walk to. Not in that pitch black emptiness, no surface or gravity, even for her bearing. She knew, somehow, if she ran in her mind, it would be complete detachment, chaotic panic, with no return. Maybe this was his mind. It intrigued her, spinning through thought and nothing more, spinning. Spinning. Spin. But no. No, wait. She was getting lost. Her thoughts had no meaning. She made no images. She had no control. "Hey!" She hadn't moved, and suddenly feared he'd gone.
"Hey." She forced calm. "What else do you have in there?" She tried to remember the clearing, the forest, where he sat, she tried to point at the satchel. "Hey?" Worry slipped in and shook her voice. She tried to feel her arms, feel them reaching out, searching around her, trying to touch him, touch anything. "Hey?" She felt odd using his name. Was he ever there? Don't think that.
Someone grabbed her wrists, held still. "Sorry, Elizabeth. I am here." He lowered her arms.
"Show me another story."
"Here," he said, very distracted, touching her cheeks. "We cannot. We must go."
"What's wrong?" She realized what he was doing, and took over, lifting her palms, returning her eyes to their places.
"Something is coming," he said.
She heard him jump up, but didn't open her eyes. Impulsively, she expected the sun to hurt. Maybe she had a hint of fear that her eyes wouldn't work anymore. How much distrust was safe? She'd brought him for stories, she knew, for dance and dream. That vision had been a disappointment.
"Quick, oh quick." He took her hand, lifted her. The urgency made her open her eyes.
It was night. She scanned the clearing in astonishment. The moon was the only light.
"You were so long in the story." His hooves were trotting nervously in place. He sniffed the air, head twitching into the breeze. He looked right into her eyes. "We must go."
Elizabeth felt his grip tighten on her hand. He led her to where she had entered the clearing. Then he swung her by, released, pushed her back, forcing her into a jog. She turned back to him, slowing on the path. "The forest is darkening," he said, and took quick glances around at trees. "You must run now! Run, run run!"
"Aren't you coming?"
"You are safe without me. Run, oh run!"
She looked back at the path and ran hard. She was sacred, running home in the dark, alone.
More, she knew he was right.
THE FOREST GAVE ABRUPTLY away to the dirt landscape of the future housing development. The cold wind had shifted. It was gaining speed off the flat earth and streaming hard into the trees, pushing at her, hungry. Limbs creaked and broke behind her. She came to the fresh asphalt road and ran along its pale cement curb. The perfect road ran up ahead of her, meeting three measured cross streets (cul-de-sacs to be added later) and continued to the flashing barricades where the new development would attach to her neighborhood division. The road was still nameless. Looking far ahead, she saw a light on in her house. How late was it? She wished now that she knew more about the moon, its position and phases.
What lay behind her? She did not want to guess at what Pan could fear.
Her footfalls hammered the blacktop. She ran on it for a few steps. Her ankles hurt. She jumped back to the dirt. Her lungs were more than anxious. Her throat was picking up the taste of blood.
Ice crystals stung her face. Snow as small as sand, tiny glints against the distant house and streets lights, almost invisible.
She couldn't find her next breath. The air was taken from her mouth and nostrils as she inhaled. Her running rhythm jumbled into a stagger, and she stopped, gasping. She faltered forward, reaching out. She went deaf to her own gasps for an instant and heard Pan's voice of boy and owl. So close, he could have been at her back, mouth at her ear. "Something is coming." Then the demanding thuds of her heart filled her ears.
Just ahead, she saw where her air had gone. She was not twenty meters from the first crossroads, and now at its center twisted a violent cone of icy wind. The vortex rolled onto its side, spinning away from her. Elizabeth's hair swept forward with the current. Her chest fluttered, desperate and empty. Faint, she dropped to one knee when the air came. A blast of cold wind broke into her throat. She shook and coughed, then sucked in more quick breaths.
The vortex turned itself inside out, and spat forth. They hit the ground at a run, four at first. Their eyes were a fierce green glow. Huge black dogs. Now seven. Then ten. Twelve total. All running. Muscles rippling under shimmering sable hair, as legs churned. The creatures shot towards her, heads pumping. Close now, she saw the green flame dripping from their mouths.
Elizabeth scrambled back. They were almost to her. She fell on her butt and let out a helpless cry. Her arms went to her face as the pack leader jumped. She kicked her legs and screamed.
Her heartbeats counted time rapidly. She smelled the smell of animals, a hint of soot and stone. The muscles in her arms and shoulders clenched. Her eyes squeezed shut. But no teeth pierced her forearm. Animal footfalls pounded by on either side of her head. Nothing clamped and tore at her clothes. The growls she anticipated did not circle her. The pack had cleared by entirely. She heard them moving off toward the forest.
Lowering her arms, she gave a start. An immense man-shape stood over her. A second before, she could have sworn she was alone. She'd heard no other approach, felt no presence. Jagged antlers of dead bone branched from his head. She looked into the green fire of his eyes for minutes, until she realized no white curl of breath had passed his face.
He turned and took toward the forest at a trot.
"WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?" Mom almost leapt off the couch. "I was at the Dillons' for hours. Kathleen's in an absolute state, Elizabeth. What happened? They had to take her to the hospital. She was in hysterics, then comatose, and then screaming again. I wanted to ask about you, but she wouldn't stop screaming ... I have an APB out for you, did you know that? Well, did you see her? Did you see the state she was in? What happened?" Elizabeth had forgotten her mom could get concerned.
"We went out to the forest," Elizabeth said. She caught herself shrugging, which she thought afterwards, might have looked childish.
"For the whole day and night?" Mom said, incredulous.
"The night's not over." It felt more childish to argue, but there, she had said it.
"It's after midnight," Mom's tone expected she knew the disappointment involved. "Just what happened to you two?"
"She saw something."
"The police are out looking for you... Kathleen's foot ... And her eyes ..." Mom drew in a breath. "I want you to tell me, ever, if you're experimenting with drugs."
"She saw something, I said."
"It was obviously more than that, Elizabeth. Have you seen her? She was foaming at the mouth. The ambulance drivers had to strap her down. It was not something I wanted to see, thank you very much." Mom had her arms crossed, a sight Elizabeth hadn't seen in a while.
Pan. Panic. Ancient lore said that his face could bring madness. Who hadn't learned that about Pan in junior high? Kathleen, for one...
"I won't say," Elizabeth said then. Confessing to an adult would certainly ruin the magic.
Mom was taken aback. "What? You won't ...?" She unfolded her arms, and they hung out from her body like they didn't know where to go. "Won't say what?"
Elizabeth just laughed. Identify what I won't tell you? Brilliant strategy, Mom. One she'd have to remember. But ... no. "I'm going to my room." She headed for the hallway. "You'll want to cancel that APB."
She stopped, expecting it. "You can search me for drugs and/or paraphernalia if you want before I lock myself in my room!" She held the tension a moment, then looked at the couch, frowning. "Dad's not out looking for me, is he?"
"No. No ..." Mom settled just as suddenly. "... he went to bed an hour ago." She shared a frown with her daughter.
Elizabeth recovered from the confusion first, and took advantage "Goodnight, Mom. I'm sorry."
Dad expected her to come back? Since when did he care?
ELIZABETH SWAM UP OUT of sleep toward the rapping sound and opened her eyes, realizing she knew the noise but disappointed that she wasn't at the window already. She went to the end of her bed and looked into the night. A dark hand waved outside the glass. She opened the window quietly. Mom slept light and neither of them needed an argument about sneaking out, dishonesty or mid-morning visitors. She wasn't cold in her nightshirt, not like the snow of earlier.
The windowsill was just above his head. He looked up at her with what, she could tell, was a controlled smile. The moon touched his horns. She reached out a hand that he was surprised to see. It took him a moment to accept the greeting, lift his own hand. He could be so innocent. She liked him for that. It was good to see him. He smelled like she imagined a faun would up close.
She felt a warmth she had never felt before.
"Tell me--" she said, "those rumors about you and the dryads, the forest nymphs..." she whispered, with a smile and side-glances, "are they true?"
"Do you believe them true?"
"I seem to remember reading it was quite characteristic of Pan to have extensive parties, and chase the female forest dwellers."
"Chasing is but half the game," he said, momentarily distant. "I would ask you again what you believe."
She said things before she could stop.
"Well, I'd like to think..." She bit her lip, considering nothing at all, performing an action--she knew full well its interpretation. "That he was still wild--but he reserved himself." She leaned out, closer to him, looking away. "For fewer. Maybe for ..." She turned her face to him, their noses near touching. "For one," she said.
He shook a finger. "I recall, now how I recall--" His hooves trotted an excited dance, "A girl like you, a girl much like you, she said--" He spun in place. "Exactly like you, oh yes, she didn't want such talks of such things between us. Did she not, oh not?"
"Yes ... yes. Uhm ... Yeah!" She leaned back quickly, hitting her head on the open window. "Oww. Yeah." She rubbed her head and wouldn't look at him then. "That girl was me." She settled crossed arms on the windowsill. She said nothing for awhile and blew into a cobweb. Then she breathed in like she had made up her mind. "I just want somebody to run with. In the forest. It'll be gone soon. The city's spreading, eating everything." She waved toward the new development, the hulking shapes of a bulldozer and a backhoe. "And dreams too. There aren't many left." She was done.
He didn't look at her sideways, no hint to make her confess denial. What she had said was not denial. He just watched her eyes, filled with belief.
"Have you ever been in love?" Elizabeth put her chin on her folded hands. "Tell me." He hesitated.
One of his hooves, so much a part of him, (and still so fascinatingly animal to her), lifted, nervous, ever restless. Then he reached out quickly, decision made.
Comforting darkness. Float, anchored.
"This is the story--"
Smile. "And the story is this."
Elizabeth took her hands away and saw his face immediately. There was no waiting in the deadness between. She wanted to see him. He was wiping his eyes with the back of his hand, head turned, so she wouldn't see.
"You loved her," she asked, more to herself. "What was her name?"
"I believe I loved her." He touched the pipes, hung from a string around his neck. "Syrinx," he said, whisper of memory. "These are to remember her."
"Play them." Get his mind off it. "Play something."
"For thousands of years I have not. It would not let me. In the deadness. No sound."
"You talked about that before, the deadness."
"So ... long in it. Blackness. Every moment a year, crawling on me ... like gnats. Floating, nothing to feel, thoughts without origin, waiting ... waiting. Eons of darkness. Eating my memories of the forest and music and animals... until nothing--nothing--nothing ... nothing nothing ..." He grabbed her arm. Then he dropped to the ground. He shook his head, muttering. "The forest does not speak with me now. No longer. Oh, the loneliness. Oh, I am not for this world, Elizabeth."
Keep me company. No, too corny. She didn't say it. Nothing else came. Not even sympathy. I like your stories, isn't that enough? No, that wasn't good either. I can hide you. Could she?
He jumped up so quick she hit her head again.
"They come again." He clutched his pipes and bag, trotting, looking fearfully at the forest.
"Who?" she said in worry. She remembered, despising herself for not asking him earlier.
"Only the forest can hide me." He was stepping toward the woods, then back. "They too, they too are in there. But the trees I need, the hidings ..." He pawed the ground. "I will run all the night."
"I'm sorry," she said, not knowing why. Not really.
"Stay now, do stay, in shelter." He gripped her hand hard so she knew. "Do not follow. Sleepy and dream are your only safe." He jumped away, ran off, moving in a wide angle to enter the forest around the east edge.
She wanted to watch his grace, to ease her worry. A chill invaded through the neck of her shirt. A far off howl made her back away. They wouldn't bark while they ran, she guessed, no--was sure. They would move as silently as their mute leader, with no longer any need for breath.
She didn't exactly believe him. That she could not follow, that there was nothing she could do to help him. But she felt it too.
The Pack was running and the hunt was on.
And she had forgotten the grip of fear, if she had ever known it.
No matter the rationale or effort she tried to apply, all she could do was close the window, latch it, and retreat.
In bed, she pulled the covers up over her head. She trembled. She whimpered. She regretted all this (this what? dream? wish? magic?) and scolded herself in harsh hisses. The paralysis of reason was back from childhood nightmares. The only protection available now were the bed covers, and she held them tight, feeling her breath condense on her skin, and listened. For them to come, the Dogs of The Hunt, to sniff and scratch the wall outside her window.
MOM WAS GONE WHEN Elizabeth got up. Sunday morning, so: church. The note on the refrigerator said they would talk when she got home. There was also a suggestion that Elizabeth take the bus down to the hospital and visit Kathleen. Not without calling first, of course. Find out when visiting hours were, check the bus schedule, etcetera.
She called. There were no visiting hours for Kathleen Dillon. When asked why, the nurse wanted to know if Elizabeth was family. Elizabeth was honest. The nurse was sorry, but all she could say was that Kathleen's present medical condition did not allow for visitors. After a few minutes, Elizabeth called the Dillons'. Kathleen's mom said that they had Kathleen on heavy sedatives and secured so that she wouldn't try to hurt herself again. She said it quick, swallowing words, before she could cry. She didn't want to talk to Elizabeth, but she wouldn't say so.
She sat down at the kitchen table. Hurt herself again. Oh Kathleen. Oh ... Pan. She could say his name now! She leaned back in the kitchen chair.
Dad came up the stairs. She tipped the chair forward to four legs. She was surprised he was home, but more surprised that he had the library sale books. "I've been downstairs all morning," he said. She expected displeasure with her late evening and late sleeping in. "Had to go down there to get away from Mom. Didn't want to go to church either."
She sat, visibly stunned.
He gave her the books. "Makes you wonder where they all went." He tapped the books and went down the hall in a hurried walk. Was this coming from him? "Wonder."
"Dad?" She watched, could only watch.
He reached his bedroom door. Holding onto the knob, he looked back at her. That look again, the lost longing, it pulled harder on his face this time, a buried plea. He had called his wife 'Mom,' not Barbara.
She knew she could help. She knew. Still, she couldn't move until he'd broken the gaze and disappeared into his room. Then she heard the faint click of the lock, and ran to the door. "Dad?" She rapped the hollow particle wood with a knuckle. "Are you busy?" Busy what? Taking a nap already? A crap?! Is he all right?! Ask if he's all right! She knocked harder, pounded.
Dad was crying. The sobs broke his voice when he tried to speak again. "I'll tell you," he finally managed, "you find--" he drew in a quick breath, "find ... something in that forest, and you--you hold on when--when it runs." The way he said 'something.' Oh, he knew. She had assumed adults didn't have time, or faith. Or magic.
"Dad?" Oh Dad, want to run in the forest? We've time. Haven't we? Don't question! Run. He wouldn't answer. She tried the knob, uselessly.
She cried for awhile in the hallway. He had, she realized, learned to cry silently.
Thinking of her mom gave her strength to get up and attack the problem.
She ran through the kitchen, swept the Celtic mythology book from the table, sat in the middle of the living room floor. She wiped her eyes and prepared for battle.
She read slow and careful, occasionally jumping to the top of the page, the word in the chapter heading: 'Myths.' She read that word, then moved her lips to it. Then she said it aloud, with his name. "Myth myth myth myth. Herne. Myth myth. Herne. Myth." His other names--just to be sure--snip away, gut and trim, peel and burn. "Cernunnos. Myth. Cernunnos. Myth. Wild Huntsman. Myth." She could feel the faith breaking away. Take that, she thought triumphantly.
SHE DRESSED QUICKLY. SHE stuffed gloves in the coat pockets, with the snow in mind, though (sure?) she wouldn't (shouldn't) have to deal with that anymore. She ran along the new development street, straight for the forest, excited for the green to enfold her, seal behind, never release. Passing the last crossroads, she caught a chill. Her spirit shuddered too. She remembered what she read. A crossroads was Herne's point of manifestation, according to legend. Now she had to make use of her mom's thought and faith, wherein "legend" meant Untrue. To be sure, she shouted, "Myth!" as she ran by, with as much defiance in her voice as she could muster. That should keep him lost. Cast into that void of absence, the abyss after the believers had forgotten, thence buried under generations of skeptics, usurpers and infidels. The deadness. I must beware disbelief, she thought, thinking of her dad.
The gracious forest invited her in.
PAN WAS DANCING IN the clearing. He danced with more fluidity than he ran. His skips were as unaware of their energy as a child in game, with the leaping ease of a deer. He was playing his syrinx, faltering not a note among the activity of his legs and arms. He didn't stop when she walked in. His eyes were closed. Even with his cheeks red and full, drawn into the tight whistle of pursed lips, he was entirely happy, free among the trees. She joined him, following in clumsy skips. Then his music moved her legs. She was laughing. She said his name.
She touched his shoulders, to hold on, move in a connected pair. His playing stopped. He stumbled and turned, surprised, maybe afraid. Next he was just embarrassed. "Great greetings to you," he said, "Elizabeth." He was breathing hard, and sat. "Not had I played since leaving ... the deadness. Such awful thick dust in my mouth, and filling me, my eyes ... and my dreams." He picked his nails. "How I hated it there." He shook his head and the thought away, and smiled. "But how free now. To move, imagine, and make music."
"I came to tell you--" she said.
"I celebrate seeing you. And think they have gone. There is safety. And you do not have to go this time."
"Came to tell you he's gone." She took his hands. "I un ... I ended him." She took her breath and looked right at him. "Because he's just a story. A myth."
Pan twitched at the word.
"And I want to show you..." She closed his eyes with fingers drawn down over the lids. Closing her own eyes, she held her hands against his forehead, fingers on horns, palms over eyes. "Show you I know how," she whispered, making herself sure.
She slipped them up, through, spinning, into the blackness of the between, spinning. "This is the story..." She began it. And he,
"The story is this."
Pan was trembling when they came out of it. "Why, oh cries of whys did you show me this?" He pushed her hands away. "Why should I like to see him? All the night I have been fleeing him."
She didn't know why. Yes she did. Simple: a story she liked. Couldn't he share the story? It wasn't a story for him, she understood, but ... "It's all right," she assured him, "He's gone."
"Why do you make that story for me?"
"I read about him this morning. Told myself he was make-believe. To un... unmake--to dismantle him."
"Oh, Leeza, Leeza, Leezabeth," he wailed, "You are a bringer of him!"
"No--" She sounded unsure. Fascination leaked, and Pan could feel it. But how, she argued with herself, could she disbelieve one legend and keep another? Pan was already apprehensive, his head ticking about like a bird, searching for smells. "No," she said, so strong now that he looked at her, and was instantly calm. "He's gone," she assured, "he was just a story someone made up. He's trapped in a book on my coffee table." Finished, she took Pan's face in her hands and kissed him.
They went down on the forest floor, where she held him even after he stopped trembling.
SHE JUMPED AWAKE.
The twelve dogs sat in a perfect circle around her.
What did I dream? What have I done?
The smell of soot was thick. They stayed on their haunches, glaring patiently and breathless, with burning eyes in their still, almost innocent faces. One of them stepped in and sniffed her. She felt the icy bite of the green flame. When she got up they didn't react at all, just watched her, the flame in their mouths crackling in a kind of unearthly panting.
Pan was gone. She tucked her fingers in her armpits.
Why are they here? Why are they back?
No time. A horn rang out like a moose from the end of the clearing. She looked. The dogs looked with her.
Herne the Huntsman lowered the horn, and turned into the trees.
The dogs were off, kicking up frost.
He led the hunt. He had found the red deer.
She was on her feet and running after them. She tried to put on a glove, gave up, dropped them, ran faster. "No! Oh no ... Wait!"
The last of the dogs was disappearing into the deep forest.
What have I done? she was trying to answer. She could suddenly hear the highway. Pan had to stay. She needed him. To fight this dry, faithless world of cement and asphalt. The forest would be gone soon.
She could not match pace with The Hunt. Far ahead, she heard leaves crushed. The horn sounded again. The moonlight was thin in the heavier trees. Afraid as she was to hit anything in the dark, she ran hard.
Branches cut her arms. Her ankles twisted, her knees flared. She kept on. Oh, Pan, I'm so sorry. The thickness of coming tears threatened to choke her.
She found them at a creek. Herne was holding the dogs back with a command, looking over his prey. Out of breath, she tried to call him a heartless bastard.
The creek was shallow. Pan could have crossed easily, maybe lost the scent. He paced now along the bank, knowing what was behind him, fingering his pipes. He was crying.
"Wait!" Elizabeth yelled, "Wait. Don't--don't do anything. Stop." Her chest heaved. "Please wait."
Pan threw his syrinx in the creek. "You had not the faith," he said to her, voice flooded with anguish. "The faith in me. Because of you he is here." He sniffled like a boy. "I think that I hate you, Elizabeth."
"How can you ... But I ..." She gaped at him, started toward him, to grab and shake him. But she stopped. He was completely correct of course.
"So, so sorry. I do not hate you." He sighed. "But how tired am I. So very, and very." He watched the syrinx tumble away in the current. "I need such sleep. Of the real forever."
She was already crying.
"Unbring me, Elizabeth."
She moved towards him, a last hold, a kiss.
"No," he said.
She understood. And she nodded to The Hunt.
HE SMILED AT HER as they took him down.
She stopped sobbing and froze. She would cry for herself later.
The Huntsman joined this one, the last, for he would be leaving too. Dead souls needed no chasing in this world. And, the red deer was finally caught. There were no screams as they tore at their kill.
She made herself watch, to know he was dead.
Great Pan is dead.
© 2003 Andrew S. Fuller, all rights reserved
Vernal Equinox 2003 Issue, Updated April 4, 2003
BLOOD ROSE is Copyright © M. W. Worthen.
"Spring Equinox: The Summoning"