I knew it wasn't going to be a good day from the moment I opened my eyes in the morning. I got up on the wrong side of the bed (literally) knocking my head against the makeshift shelving just above it. She was already up, probably in the kitchen banging pots and pans and what not. I could smell the bread baking in the oven. It wasn't a pleasant smell; it was tinged with sourness. I was still sitting on the edge of the bed rubbing my already forming bump when I remembered, it was judgment day.
Rey made all the decisions in our village. No one spoke out against him, not because of respect or faith but fear. The few that were thick enough to do so would disappear at night. I wasn't ignorant. I knew his verdict would be in favor of her, not me. All I could hope for was that he would take pity on me, and not be too harsh.
It was unjust, everyone knew I wasn't the one at fault, but nothing could be done about it. It was Rey who was in charge, and what he said was final.
Rey was an odd man, and many rumors circulated. Most of them were regarding his age. Many of the villagers' great-grandparents were ruled by Rey, yet he hardly looked forty. It was silently agreed upon that he must be immortal. There were many theories, ranging from a magical spring in the forest to him being sent by god. The latter was highly unlikely, given that he was a cruel man that delighted in the suffering of others, and no god (if there exists one) in his or her right mind would make him their messenger. The only message he projected was that he didn't give a damn what happened to us, as long as he was entertained. Maybe that was god's message.
Anyway, I headed toward the kitchen. Sure enough there she was, my "wife". She gave me a look of acknowledgment, nothing more. It wasn't like I had expected anything, after a year of living in the same house we've never even had a real conversation. We're supposed to be husband and wife, but I never really loved her. She was beautiful, there was no denying that, but she wasn't someone I could connect with. Our marriage was arranged by our parents. We had no say in it whatsoever. I think that's the worst part about us, there never was any love.
I found myself looking her. She had her back turned to me, her long blonde locks fell a little below her waist. She turned swiftly and caught me looking at what she must've thought was her butt. I quickly returned my gaze to the red wine in my cup. My cheeks must've been about the same color.
I left the kitchen and headed outside. At that instant a messenger ran into me spilling the wine on both of us. He apologized and handed me an envelope and left quite urgently. I flipped the envelope over leaving light streaks of wine on it. My heart stopped beating, and my lungs breathing when I read it. The verdict was made.
I was to leave the village by nightfall or be hanged.
So here I am, I don't know where I'm supposed to go, I don't know what's going to happen to me. The village is completely surrounded by dense forest, and presently raindrops are starting to fall, and the sun is setting. I picked up my sack of clothes and walked to the gated entrance, I looked back one last time. All the little brick houses, the well that I used to drop stones in… This was where I had lived all my life.
I left quickly; I knew I would start to cry if I stayed any longer. After walking just a few feet I was in the forest. The atmosphere changed completely, the remaining sunlight filtered through the thick canopy of leaves in patches. The temperature also dropped. I needed to find somewhere to stay for the night, and then I would be off again first thing in the morning.
I managed to drag myself about a mile when I felt certain someone or something was following me. I had noticed the rustling of the undergrowth a while ago but I had tried to ignore it, telling myself I was being paranoid. I looked straight ahead and kept going, I didn't dare turn around. My sweaty palms were having a hard time holding on to the sack and finally it slipped and fell to the ground with a thud. I seriously considered leaving it and running for my life.
Instead, I stopped, took a breath, closed my eyes and turned. I don't know what I was expecting, but nothing happened. Still unsure of what I might see I opened my eyes slowly, partly on an impulse. Nothing, I let out the breath I had been holding throughout this whole ordeal, picked up my sack and continued on my way.
By the time I found a suitable place to spend the night I was really tired. I must have fallen asleep the second I curled up against the wide trunk of a tree.
I woke when I felt something small fall on my head. I looked up, seeing that it was an oak tree I decided it must have been an acorn. Thump! another one, I was about to get up when I saw a squirrel up in the branches. I wasn't sure if it even was a squirrel, it looked like one except for the fact that it was missing the one most distinguishing feature of a squirrel, its tail. Without its big puffy tail it looked more like a furry rat.
I stood up and stretched, glancing at the squirrel once more, when I realized it was looking at me. I froze and put my arms down, it was only natural for a "squirrel" to be looking at a human being, but it was peculiar nonetheless. It started to descend the tree slowly, in a fearful way. I was scared of it probably as much as it was scared of me. I had expected it to come towards me but instead it went in the opposite direction and disappeared into the scrub.
It was hard to wander with an empty stomach so I began to look for berries or anything edible for that matter. Finally I came across a patch of small reddish-purplish berries. I put one in my mouth and bit into it, it had a sharp acerbic taste, I spit it out but the taste remained. After that I went looking for water.
The forest was hot and sultry during the day. I was sweating profusely and decided to take a break, that's when I really took in the sight. The sense of fear that the forest had evoked last night was gone. In daylight it was a beautiful place, and full of life too. There were birds, deer, squirrels and lots of other harmless creatures. I could hear birds calling back and forth, and the crunch of dead leaves underfoot. I also heard something else: moving water.
I was desperate to find water, I still had the acrid aftertaste of the berry on my tongue, and I seriously needed to wash. After about half an hour I came across the source of the sound. It was a crystal clear lake that stretched for quite a bit before running into the shore on the other side. I dropped my sack and splashed water on my face.
Overjoyed is the best way to describe me just then, I felt like I actually had a chance of surviving. The lake had clean water and fish too, so I didn't have to eat bitter berries! Loneliness was still an issue though. I had never been much of a social person but at least I was surrounded by other people, now all I had was squirrels.
A growl woke me from my thoughts, and ecstasy. I was sure I had heard it, and now for the second time since I had entered the forest I turned around. This time I did see something. It was salivating and the drops of saliva dripped from a whole row of canine teeth. I was sure cougars were not herbivores. I stayed put, I didn't scream, I didn't even blink. I would have done all of these things if possible. I knew I was done for, I half expected to see fragments of my life flash before my eyes like in stories. Twenty-one was too young an age to die and at the paws of a cougar too.
It was a minute before I started to wonder why it hadn't ripped me to shreds yet. The cougar took its eyes off of me for a second and looked at the tree next to it. From behind the tree stepped a woman, no wait a man. It took me a minute to process his gender. I came to the conclusion that he was indeed a man from the lack of bust. Something about the way he held my gaze was also manly. He might've been angel though, he had wings. The wings were huge and made of snowy feathers. He had dark brown hair that was woven into a long, thick braid apart from a few stray strands that lingered on the sides of his face. His eyes stood out the most, piercing emerald eyes framed by thick eyelashes. Just a look from him silenced the cougar, and then he was looking at me again. It wasn't a friendly look, it represented an authority. He was the first to speak, however he didn't speak at all.
"Who are you?" he "spoke" with power as well
"Are you talking to me?"
"Yes and no, but that's not the point"
I replied to his original question, "Aldeano, who are you?"
I found out that he spoke to people through a kind of telepathy but that he couldn't read other people's thoughts, just animal's. His name was Ivy and he was the guardian of this forest. I was still getting used to his long green robe and wings and the whole shebang, when I realized he was beautiful. I quickly averted my thoughts after that "realization".
Ivy took me to the heart of the woods. A huge tree, probably a good ten feet in diameter stood there. Its branches multiplied as it spread out, and slivers of the moon shone through the twigs. I had stopped walking a few steps back, awed by the majestic magnificence of the tree. Ivy turned and beckoned me with one hand while the other left the cougar's mane and placed itself on the trunk of the tree. The bark lit up casting a soft green light on his perfectly manicured fingers. A passage opened up and Ivy and the cougar slipped through, I stumbled into the darkness after them.
The remaining light altogether vanished when the opening closed. Ivy's thoughts penetrated the dark though, "stay close" he advised. I put my arms out in front of me in an attempt to find him, I caught something furry. At first I thought it was Ivy's wing until I heard a growl which I knew was directed at me, and told me otherwise.
I was startled when a warm, soft hand enfolded my wrist. It was Ivy's hand, and he addressed the steps up ahead. I listened but didn't take any caution, Ivy said "now" just a little bit late. I lurched forward and landed on the cougar. Ivy's hand hadn't offered the tiniest bit of support, he had let go. The cougar and I weren't on good terms from the beginning but now I was sure I'd made it worse. He flipped over and threw me onto the floor, I was pinned down and his claws were unsheathed. Abruptly the snarling stopped and he stepped off of me, it was probably due to a command from Ivy.
"Get up", there wasn't even a note of sympathy in his words. Ivy stepped over me and continued on his way down the earthen stairs. His robe swept over me in the process. "Wait", I had unconsciously tugged at the hem of his gown. "Let go", it was an order and I obeyed. I hesitated for a second then followed them.
Finally I saw a faint patch of light, and the steps led into a corridor. There were sconces mounted on the walls radiating heat and light from the flames that danced inside them. I was relieved to be in the light. At the end of the corridor there was a thick partition made of hanging vines. Ivy and the cougar walked through it, I cautiously separated the leaves. On the other side there was a huge expanse of empty space carpeted with moss. The only furnishing was a large hammock-like thing that stretched across the room. The hammock was covered with a canopy of various flowers and plants that hung from the ceiling.
"Make yourself comfortable, I'm going to bed. Good night." That was all he said before he disappeared behind the curtain of green. I looked around the room, the cougar had curled up in a corner and was glaring at me. I approached him slowly, "What's your name?" Ivy answered me instead "Theo, he doesn't seem to like you very much." I directed my gaze at Theo again. "Look, I'm sorry about the steps, are you still mad at me?" I wasn't really expecting a reply but he snorted and looked the other way, I took that as a "yes".
Several minutes had passed, now I heard the steady breathing of both of them, the beauty and the beast. The cougar's head was on my leg now. Theo looked kind of cute when he was asleep, at least until I felt his drool on my thigh. I tried to move my leg out from under his head slowly. I managed to do it without waking him.
I stood up and got the blood circulating in my legs again. I felt lonely for some reason, more than I had when I was actually alone. I wondered if Ivy felt that way, who did he talk to? Was he the only human or angel or whatever in this forest? I tiptoed to the green curtain, pulled the vines aside and walked through. I felt like I had invaded his privacy as soon as I entered. He was bundled in layers of sheer green cloth. His hair was loose and spilled into rivulets along his form. He wore a relaxed, expression maybe even a little happy. I looked at my feet, suddenly embarrassed for looking at him so closely. Only then did I notice his clothes in a heap on the floor, I looked back up at him to verify what was obvious. His bare shoulders authenticated that he was in fact naked. I turned around and left quickly, making quite a bit of noise in the process.
I sat down beside Theo and leaned my head back against the wall, when I heard the vines move. I closed my eyes halfway, pretending to be asleep. Through my barely open eyes I saw Ivy. He was holding the green sheets around his hips. I closed my eyes fully.
I didn't reply.
"Come on, I know you're awake."
I could hear him walking towards me. I opened my eyes a little, he squatted down in front of me.
"You know, your neck is going to hurt tomorrow if you sleep like that."
He put a hand behind my head and pushed it away from the wall. I quit my act.
"What do you want?"
He didn't answer me; instead he took my wrist and pulled me to my feet. One hand was still holding the sheets and the other hand my hand. I let him lead me to the entrance and through the vines. We went up the steps and back outside.
He looked like a child entranced by fireworks at a fair. I didn't even know what he was looking at. I was still surprised by the totally different Ivy that stood before me. Then I noticed the little lights. Fireflies, lots of them, surrounded us. I had never seen so many of them before, it wasn't long before I was spellbound too.
We spent the night outside. Few words or thoughts were exchanged, the silence kept the magical aura intact. I felt comfortable with him, something that didn't happen with very many people. I didn't have to talk about the weather just to say something. I liked being with him.
I tripped over roots and various other things in failed attempts to catch fireflies. Ivy on the other hand was a "natural", all he had to do was call the fireflies to him. They swarmed around him and landed in his cupped hands. I was jealous and also amazed.
We ended up leaning against the trunk of the big tree. I pulled my knees up to my chest trying to retain the little body heat that I had left. It wasn't freezing or anything but I felt myself start to numb. I looked over at Ivy, who unlike me wasn't fully clothed. He had wrapped the green fabric around his shoulders and his eyes were closed. He looked tired, but happy too.
When I woke up, I didn't find myself under the tree, instead I was curled up in Ivy's hammock thing. Thankfully he wasn't beside me, I was freaking out enough without him being there too. I tried to sit up so I could get out, but it was hopeless. I was tangled up in the green material and it smelled like Ivy, a fresh musky smell. I thrashed around for a moment and the hammock flipped and flung me onto the floor facedown. I rolled over in time to see a feather from the hammock float and land on my nose.
I must've looked pretty pathetic when Ivy walked through the curtain of green. I thought he would laugh, but he looked kind of confused and maybe even worried. That's when I felt something trickle across my cheek. Ivy bent down and took the feather from the tip of my nose, it was bloody.
I had to go all the way to the lake to clean up my nose, Theo came with me. Ivy had to go on his daily rounds through the forest, I was kind of hoping that he would accompany me instead of the cougar. Theo kept doing his business every few feet and it was getting on my nerves. Other than that he just walked alongside me and I occasionally petted the top of his head. I hadn't expected his fur to be so soft. It actually looked bronze in the sunlight. I wondered if he was groomed on a regular basis by Ivy.
At the lake I figured I might as well take a bath. Theo was entertaining himself trying to catch fish. I stripped and walked deeper into the tepid water. I didn't know how to swim so I was careful to not go in too deep. The fishes swam away from me and I tried to catch them too. It was impossible, even when I had them in my hands they slipped out of my grasp. I liked being in the water, I emerged feeling clean. I was glad I was here with Theo rather than Ivy.
When I was dry and clothed, I asked Theo if he could find Ivy, he nodded which made me want to hug him for some odd reason. I found that I liked the forest, maybe even as much as the village, though it wasn't as convenient as far as finding food and other necessities.
We finally found Ivy and a "squirrel" beneath a tree of white flowers and ebony wood. It was small but provided sufficient shade for all of us to sit in. The squirrel was that squirrel, the one with no tail that had scared me. He didn't look so frightening now, in fact he seemed friendly.
Ivy introduced me to the squirrel, who was actually a she. Her name was Claire, and she remembered me. I wasn't sure if I should ask about her tail; I was curious but decided not to. Claire who was standing beside Ivy climbed up his sleeve and perched on his shoulder. She then stretched to full height, looking more like prairie dog than a squirrel. She then scrambled off of him and left quickly. Ivy told me that she had babies to take care of. I felt a little admiration for her.
"Are you ok?", it took me a moment to figure out he was talking about my nosebleed this morning. "Yeah, I'm fine." I didn't know what else to say.
"What happened this morning?"
"Nothing, I just got tangled up and fell."
He didn't sound too convinced, but what else could I say? That the thought of having slept in the same hammock as him scared the shit out of me?
I didn't know how I ended up there. I didn't remember crawling into the hammock myself; I wouldn't have done that anyway. The only other option was that Ivy had carried me there, which I wasn't about to acknowledge.
I wanted to believe that maybe he took me there in the morning and I hadn't slept next to him at all. Truly, the idea of sleeping next to him scared me but also filled me with a euphoria. Either way I didn't like where I was going with my observations.
Ivy was still looking at me, not expectantly or anything, just staring intently. I didn't ask him "what?", I was scared of what his reply might be. I looked down and tried to ignore him but I could feel his gaze. I asked him.
"How old are you?"
"What did you do in the village? like, what was your job?"
"I'm a ceramist. I just finished my apprenticeship." I used the present tense even though I knew I'd never mold anything again. I loved molding, clay was one of the few things I felt I had control over. I could make it anything I wanted.
Ivy nodded, he looked genuinely interested. I wasn't sure what else to say so I let him ask me questions.
"What about your family?"
"My parents were farmers, and I had a wife"
I didn't know the answer to that question myself so I just shrugged.
"Did you love her?"
"…No, not really"
It got quiet after that.
"My parents are visiting tomorrow, they're messengers"
"Messengers for who?"
The way he said it hinted at exasperation.
"You're not supposed to be here, humans and immortals aren't allowed to mix."
"Would your parents tell on you?"
"Yes, if they think I'm fond of you."
I didn't ask him what I was wondering.
"I don't have anywhere else to go; I'm banned from the village."
"I'm not asking you to leave…"
"You'll be my slave for a day"
He gave me a smile…no, a smirk