You’re a messenger boy, given very simple instructions: Deliver this missive to the enemy’s army. But to do that, you must first enter the Forest of Gaia. Take the straight, paved path through the forest, and do not deviate. Touch nothing, question nothing, wonder at nothing and, if possible, think of nothing. Do this, and you will have served well and distinguished yourself in our cause.
But it is this mandate to think of nothing that confuses you, dooms you, even as you prepare bread and ale for the two-hour journey, even as you venture into a noiseless forest ancient beyond all human recall, where robins freeze in midair, berries clutched in their beaks, and goats bray sullenly at you by a brook. Snakes stare at you, almost gaping, then slither on blithely. The forbidden and unspoken, you realize, always come readiest to the empty mind.
You lose the path and stumble across some old ruins, the charred stone with a cup or chalice ensign impossibly standing like a broken memory, with wild emerald vines rakishly draped and grass tufts growing through the cracked tile. And this girl.
She lies on a stone slab, vines snaked around her wrists and ankles tying her down. Aside from the long wooden stake protruding from her heart, by far the most remarkable thing about her is her honey-gold beauty, the vibrant coral of her cheeks, the ruby of her lips. Surrounding the slab are arcane paper symbols tied by string to little wooden crosses.
One kiss, you think, leaning in. It’s been awhile since you’ve been with a woman, and the sight fills you with a longing that will reach its end in peace. Maybe then you can lie down, rest a bit; you feel lonely. You are a fool. You don’t realize you’re giving something of yourself that you should never give to a stranger.
“Are you my husband?”
When her lips move against yours, you jump away, a scream lodged in your throat. Her eyes are open, as piercing as the emerald of the forest. Her head is quizzically cocked.
“Are you my husband?” she repeats.
You stare at her. She stares back. It’s awkward. Perhaps you should leave.
“No, don’t g—” She winces. “Ow. Don’t mind me, it’s the thousand years’ worth of atrophy talking. Just need a little help, one small, tiny favor. Can you remove this stake from me?”
There are a million things running through your mind, and you voice the least significant of all. “I’m not your husband.”
“You’re a beautiful animal,” she says, apropos of nothing. “Your limbs and form hold true. Your arms and legs look perfectly functional. You don’t look like you’d ever turn unexpectedly into a wolf. A thousand matriarchs would be happy to let you sire their children. If you can lift this stick out of me, I’ll make you my husband and bear a child by you.”
And then you hear noises, sounds you don’t expect in this empty forest—human shouts and calls, male and martial. The girl speaks quickly now, with urgency.
“You fear death, then? Good. Get this stake off me. This is no trifle. If you want to live, then you must free me.”
You think of your message, the moldering bread and ale in your purse. You think of the paper symbols, what they could mean. You think of your unfollowed instructions.
“You’ve gone this far,” she says, as if reading your mind, eyes darting about. “And you’ve done very well. But you must forget your past, and heed only me.”
And only because you are lost and confused, too tired to think, because those same principles that have led to the delivery of your messages also call to help any maiden in distress, and only because you fail to realize that the stake papers have DO NOT AWAKE DO NOT AWAKE DO NOT AWAKE written over and over again in all of the ancient languages of the world, you grasp the wood.
(All right, not just those reasons. A part of you did like her flattery and the promise of being a husband. She whispers that she is loyal, true, and pays all her husbands fairly and then gives your lips a quick lick of her dry tongue, like a newborn kitten. How nice, you think. Nonsensical, but nice.)
The wood dissolves beneath your touch, and after a blinding light and the sound of relieved and increasingly manic laughter, so do you.
About the author:
Cristina Otero is a writer and poet from Houston, TX with select publications in online magazines such as AZURE: A Journal of Literary Thought. She is a graduate of the University of St. Thomas and the University of Houston with degrees in English literature and education.