Tales from Kilgour Forest
“Lord in Heaven watch over you, that was a foolish quest.” Elias said when Daniel completed his tale.
“I just, I didn’t want to tell you because I knew you were, well…”
“No man wants to help when a neighbor’s house burns in the height of summer. But those that do find their fences mended in autumn, and their roofs newly thatched in spring.”
“You’re saying you would have helped had I only asked?”
Daniel turned the thought over in his head. He was polite to an almost compulsive degree. One colleague took his favorite pen and he never asked for it back, though they used it constantly over the next three years. In his classroom the projector was broken and so he used the chalkboard the rest of the year, so as to not add to the hassle of the custodian.
Underneath his politeness was also a complete lack of bravery. He perhaps had not asked Elias because, if the roles were reversed, he would not help. He had only stepped into that forest because he felt obligated, and knowing now of the truth in Elias’ words, he had no desire to do so again.
The day crept on. Daniel turned over many an excuse in his head why they could leave off gallantry for another night while he conducted more research on his computer.
The sight of the computer transfixed Elias, and so that afternoon glided by unexpectedly swiftly as Daniel taught Elias about the Internet and the great wonders and perils that lay within.
As Daniel explained about satellites that hung in the sky and communicated information across the Earth, fear was replaced with sadness. He loved to teach, and he ached for the life he was supposed to lead.
The blue sky of afternoon broke out into oranges and yellows. Elias’s eyes began to slide to the forest where the shadows darkened. Daniel’s words fumbled as his attention trailed off to the coming night.
As the sky faded to purples and blues the greatest knowledge of the human world could hold the men’s interest no longer. The gathered gloom of evening pervaded the outpost. The shadows in the corners grew long like spindled branches to remind the men of what laid in wait.
When the sky faded to grey the men stepped outside the outpost. Elias built a fire. Daniel spread out a blanket on the ground even as he still planned to make an apology that he needed to go home that night.
The men waited.
They waited until the night turned completely black and the last of the sun had cooled off the rocks. The wind moved from all directions and they buried deeper into their jackets. The same adrenaline that had made them jumpy in the day had been used up; all that was left was tiredness.
Daniel, with a yawn, thought back and realized he had not slept well in days.
“Think we can call it a night?” Daniel asked, as his feet burned from the cold and he sorely missed his slippers.
From far off came the thrum of motorcycle wheels. Daniel did not pay it much attention, but for the fact that next came the crunch of gravel as the motorcycle turned onto the path to the outpost.
Daniel looked to see Elias fast asleep against the bench.
He shoved Elias to wake, but the man just swatted his hand away and turned on his side.
Out of the darkness came a motorcycle. On it a small woman rode, clad all in black. The rider pulled up short and took off her helmet. She shook free a dark brown bob with gentle curls that settled perfectly into place.
Her deep green eyes connected with Daniel and she smiled.
Daniel’s breath caught in his lungs. It was not simply that he had never seen a woman so beautiful; it was that she seemed expertly crafted specifically from his dreams.
“May I warm myself by your fire?” the woman said sweetly.
Daniel nodded dumbly.
The woman smiled even wider, as if satisfied with the affect she had on him. She sauntered over and sat beside him. Leather jacket, low-cut silky top, tight jeans that stuck to every curve; it was fifty degrees and Daniel could feel himself break into a sweat.
She took out a flask. “Want some?” she tipped her head to him so a piece of her hair fell on her cheek.
“Um, no thank you.” Daniel remembered some fairy tale had spoken about not to take food or drink from a spirit. But this woman was all too real. He was acutely aware how her arm brushed against his.
“Fair enough,” the woman took a swig. She looked at him and the light from the fire danced in her eyes. Deep ponds with moss along their shores, eyes like deep leafy woods at the height of spring. The tips of the fire’s flames reflected in her eyes and blossomed there.
“Oh, sorry,” he mumbled as he realized he stared at her.
“No, it’s alright,” she said, and looked back at him with a question on her lips.
He did not know how to answer.
After a moment she seemed impatient and stood.
“Um, where are you traveling from?” Daniel tried to make conversation. This might be a normal woman. His imagination ran wild, sleep deprivation set he constraints of his rational mind free.
“Oh, you know, here and there.” The woman twirled around, her arms flung to the night sky.
Her answer was less than informative.
“Um, where are you heading to?”
“I hope, some distance away from here.”
Again, her answer was obtuse. As her face angled towards the night sky and the stars seemed to warp and fold around her.
Daniel blinked, shook his head. He really needed to sleep.
“Are you running away from something?” he asked.
“You do like to ask so many questions.” The woman pulled out a dandelion and blew it in his direction. He watched, transfixed as the seed heads drifted over the fire.
A seed drifted to his nose and he sneezed. Then sneezed again. He shook his head to clear it.
As he opened his eyes the stars appeared to grow and bleed into one another, so the whole night sky was flooded in silver. Overhead the forest folded around him. Leaves formed a lattice overhead and the ground rose around him as if he was in the palm of an earthen hand. He did not know if the hand meant to crush him.
He tried to stand but his knees would not support him. He looked again at the fire, which seemed to bulge and fold back in on itself. Across from the flames, the beautiful woman stood. Now from her head was sported tree branches twisted into antlers. Her jeans and jacket had disappeared, replaced by vines and leaves that twisted and folded continuously to form a dress that writhed and coiled and bloomed.
He looked again at the Dean’s hand and saw it ripple, as if seen through a cloud of smoke. Smoke. He had not come from class, but was in front of a fire.
He stepped back. The Dean and his students looked concerned and crowded closer to him, but as he looked closely he saw their fingers were tinged green. The longer he looked, the more their nails twisted into vines that curled around his arm and sprouted thorns that pricked his skin.
Long ago, there was another life he had led as a Caretaker of a forest. In that forest there was a lost boy. The boy had a name, if only he could remember it….
“Arman. I want you to give the boy back.”
As he spoke the floor began to waver to show gravel underneath. The roof cracked to expose starlight that streamed in.
“Your kindness is foolish.” As he heard the woman’s voice, the final filaments of the illusion faded to expose the spirit as she stood over the fire. “That boy burned a fire in my domain that hurt my subjects. Would you pay the price for him?”
“Does the price mean being stuck in a tree?” Daniel gulped. What had once been students were now purely animated vines, ready to pounce.
“Yes.” The woman looked at him, then twirled around. Of all things, she started to hum.
“Is there any other option?”
“Mmmm-ayhaps, may-haps, mayhaps,” She came close to him. From her dress a vine unfurled itself, and from that a leaf. On the leaf was a small seed. She plucked up the seed.
“When you journey next, you must plant this seed. Do you accept?”
This sounded like a better deal than imprisonment in a tree for an indeterminate amount of time. Daniel gingerly nodded.
She dropped the seed into his palm.
He glanced down. The seed looked entirely ordinary.
When he looked up the woman had disappeared. He looked around. No vines crept close. The fire burned low and the outpost’s benches appeared entirely mundane.
Elias turned over and slowly sat up, “Did I sleep? I hardly recollect that I closed my eyes but for a minute.”
Daniel could not form words. He could not believe there was a magical spirit in front of him a second before, but for the seed that rested patiently in the palm of his hand.