Kit climbed the stairs, expecting that as she rose, she’d see a forest, in the Realm of the Faerie. Instead, she saw a wall, and a window with a view of the neighbor’s swingset and RV. The top step creaked as she set her weight on it, and she cringed. She was trespassing, breaking and entering at the very least, and even if the homeowner wasn’t a dangerous forest goddess, she’d be in big trouble.
She should just get what she came for, and then go. But what had she come for? She still had no idea why she was here.
“I know you’re here,” a female voice said, from another room. “Come.”
Kit turned towards the voice. She paused, not moving. Now was the time to leave. She’d been caught, but not identified. She could just go. It was dangerous here.
Her body disobeyed her. She walked down the hall, trailing her hand along the balustrade that blocked the hall from the stairwell. The floor was hardwood, and for some reason, that made her uneasy, as though she were walking on human bones. She skipped the first door on her left, which was closed. The second one had been left ajar enough to allow a beam of light to pour across the uneven beams, making the wood appear golden where the varnish hadn’t worn away.
She pressed gently on the paneled doorway. It creaked as it swung open, revealing a large, open room. The windows had no shades, nor had they for many years, judging by the way the antique wallpaper had faded.
A dozen or more bonsai trees had been arranged in a circle around a kneeling woman. She lifted a twisted cypress out of a shallow flowerpot. The woman combed her fingers through the roots, oblivious to the muddy earth that fell to the wooden floor. She had unnaturally long fingers, with long, splintered fingernails. Her feet were huge, splayed wide underneath thick muscular legs. When she stood, she unfolded to an unnatural height, at least seven feet, and her arms hung long, fingertips reaching below mid-thigh. A dryad. Kit had never seen one before, but she knew immediately that’s what she was. Kit wanted to touch her, see if she felt like bark or like skin, but she stayed at the doorway.
The dryad combed the roots of the bonsai tree with her long fingers. When she was done, she began to unwind wire which had been wrapped around the tree’s branches. The tree was small, half the length of the dryad’s arm, and the branches weren’t much thicker than her fingers.
The dryad unwound the wire carefully, with extreme gentleness, prying it out from under the bark, which had grown around it. Kit winced in empathy, as though she were watching a nurse peel a bandage from the dried blood and pus of a wounded limb. The dryad’s face was wooden, immobile, like a mask worn to make a non-human being more comfortable among humans.
“Do dryads frighten you?” the dryad asked.
Kit shook her head.
Kit did so, stopping at the edge of the circle formed by the bonsai trees.
The dryad continued to unwind the wire from the tree. The wire had a greenish patina, and it had left grooves into the bark as the tree tried to free itself from its prison.
“The poor thing,” Kit said.
“Yes.” The dryad tossed the freed wire into a snarl of rust and verdigris. She cradled the tree gently, laid it on a pile of damp moss, then tucked a blanket of moss on top of it.
The dryad turned away from Kit, and reached for the next tree. Kit stared at the dryad’s shoulder. The dryad had white peeling bark that peeled up like a sunburn to reveal a reddish skin underneath. Her hair was thick, more like vines or thin suckers than human hair. When she moved, you could tell she didn’t have a skeleton. She didn’t move like a person of bones and flesh, but like a tree swaying in a hurricane, creaking but not breaking.
Kit didn’t understand her compulsion to touch the dryad, any more than she had understood this strange itch, or whatever it was that drew her into this house in the first place. It was like she had fallen passionately in love with this creature, and couldn’t bear to be apart from her.
She reached out and touched the smooth bark with the tip of her fingers.
The human body is comprised of millions and millions of cells. Independently, each cell is not much more sophisticated than any one-celled organism. And yet, taken together, they have a sentience that far surpasses a comparable weight of bacteria. Kit’s fingertip was forty-two inches from her brain, but the moment her skin touched the dryad, she felt a connection.
The temperate forests of the earth are comprised of millions and millions of trees. Independently, each tree is not more sophisticated than any other plant. And yet, taken together, they have a sentience that far surpasses a human. Yseulta’s dryad avatar was 1.27 miles away from the nearest forest, and yet, when Kit’s fingertip touched the dryad’s bark, Yseulta, the sentience of forests, knew that her spell to summon a familiar had been successful.
Kit was so alarmed at knowing Yseulta’s thoughts that she jerked back. She glanced at her fingers, expecting to see something on the tips, a burn, perhaps, but they looked unmarred.
“You are mine now,” Yseulta said, using the dryad.
Kit swallowed, though the saliva seemed to have drained from her mouth. She shook her head.
“I called, you came.”
Kit took a step back. She shook her head. “No. Not me. There must be some mistake.”
“My old familiar died. I called for a new one. You came. You are now my familiar until your death, Treemaker.”
The dryad stood to her full height, nearly tall enough to brush the painted tin of the high Victorian ceilings. But it wasn’t her height that intimidated Kit, it was her vastness, the millions and millons of acres, tons of living wood and root and bacteria, a sentience that was as close to a goddess as Kit had ever felt. And she could still feel it, even though they weren’t touching. She could feel Yseulta’s presence stretching out over most of the earth’s surface, and all of her attention was focused on Kit. One human woman, as small in comparison to Yseulta as an e.coli bacteria was to Kit.
And Kit did what she should have done the first moment she got there. She ran. She ran down the hall. She flew down the steps three at a time, across the forested lower floor, out the door, through the lawn of saplings, and out to her car.
She fumbled for her keys, hands shaking so fast she couldn’t fit them into the lock. She glanced back at the house, expecting to see the tall shape of a dryad lumbering after her, as if she were the hapless victim in a horror movie.
“Until your death, Treemaker.” Yseulta’s wooden voice echoed in her mind.
Kit wanted wanted to wake up, even if it meant she’d overslept for work. She wanted it to be an elaborate joke. She wanted it to be a delusion. She didn’t want to have one of the Old Ones, a creature that even the earth fey spoke of with awe, hovering in the back of her mind like an alien implant. She could still feel her there, feel the connection. She felt the trees in the city dotting her awareness like points glowing on a map. She felt something else too, a strange seeping into her limbs and mind, a corporate takeover of her body and soul. It terrified her. It awed her. Even as she sat in her car, signaling and honking and changing lanes a little aggressively, she felt the cold greenness everywhere, part of her.
She drove to Café Ishmael, parking illegally in front of a fire hydrant, and rushed inside. She scanned around the room, Barnabus was manning the counter, along with some part-timer that she didn’t recognize. She went through the back door and up the stairs that led to James’ apartment. She wanted to pound on his door and fling it open, but she heard Freddie fussing inside, so instead she tapped and waited.
Maya opened the door, holding Kit’s nephew in one hand and a washcloth in the other. “Kit, what’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Come in. James is resting. He has another migraine. I can make you a cup of tea if you’d like.”
Kit managed a nod. Her mind was still green and leaf and loam. She felt bears in her hair, and deer, and wolves and marmots and squirrels. She felt ferns and fungi along her spine. She felt roots filling her abdomen, and creeks and rivers flowing between her fingers and toes.
Maya dumped Freddie into Kit’s arms. He immediately turned and wailed for his mother, who walked into the apartment’s tiny kitchen. Freddie’s wails turned into squeals, and the direction of his lurch shifted so abruptly that Kit almost dropped him. She turned and saw her brother, a little tousled, wearing a sweater and jeans but no shoes. He took his son from her.
“Well,” James said, hoisting Freddie over his shoulder like a sack of coffee. Freddie squealed in delight. “What brings you here?”
Kit tried to speak and didn’t know how to begin. When she’d been young, James had been the one to run to when she’d hurt herself. James had been a heat shield against their mom’s loser boyfriends. Even after he’d left, and gone to live with their uncle Fred, he’d still been an emotional lifeline, writing her letters to let her know that a world existed outside the drunken, emotional, walking-on-eggshells trap she lived in with her mom and step-dick until she was old enough to escape. He’d been more of a parent than their mom was, and certainly more than their absent father, whose name Kit refused to speak. Since Uncle Fred died, he was also the most spiritual person in the family, and the most religious despite their mother’s Catholicism. He was the obvious choice to turn to, when you found you’d been chosen as the familiar of the goddess of forests.
“Something happened?” he asked, voice edged in concern. “Is it Fenwick?”
She shook her head. Her mind was still swimming with leaves and loam, and the tether that held her no matter where she went.
He put his hand on her forehead and brushed back her hair, until he was looking into her eyes. His aura flashed, faintly.
“You’ve been touched by the divine.”
Kit managed a nod.
“I’ve seen this in people after they first draw down the moon. But you’re not a witch. What happened?”
James set Freddie on the ground, where he immediately crawled off towards the kitchen.
It took ten minutes to get the words out. James listened patiently, and once again, she felt like they were kids together, camped out under the stairwell, waiting for everything to calm down in their apartment so they could go home. James asked a lot of questions about what it felt like, and she couldn’t answer those.
“This is an amazing gift.”
“Yes, gift. Why are you afraid?”
She shrugged. She knew what she was afraid of. This thing with Yseulta, it felt like a love so deep you lost yourself, and she had already been lost the moment she foolishly touched the dryad’s shoulder. She couldn’t back out of this, and even if she could, she wouldn’t have the strength to refuse this, now that she knew what it felt like to belong to something so much vaster than yourself. Is this what Kaa felt for her? She didn’t deserve this. She glanced at the cup of tea Maya had left for her on the coffee table. Its string dangled on top of a stack of papers. She picked it up and drank, but it had gone cold.
“It should go to someone better. Maybe a Pagan…” she trailed off with a shrug.
“She put out the call, and you were the only one who showed up.”
“I didn’t know what I was going there for.”
“But you went. You’ve been chosen, or, more to the point, you chose yourself. She said ‘I need a familiar’ and you said ‘yes, here I am’.”
“I didn’t know what I was in for.”
“Did Kaa know what he was getting into when he flew into your apartment that day? Maybe, maybe not. But he’s better for it. You know he’s better for it. He’ll make some sacrifices, but he’ll live longer as your familiar. You may live longer as Yseulta’s familiar. Who knows how it’s going to change you?”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.” She looked at her hands. They hadn’t changed, but now they had. They belonged to the forest. What she touched, Yseulta could feel. What she saw, Yseulta saw too.
“Life changes, Kit. You could get in a car accident tomorrow and be paralyzed. You could get pregnant. You could win the lottery. Sometimes changes are bad, and some of them are good. I think this is a good change. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll see that.”
She squirmed, internally. What had she expected James to say? That yes, there had been a mistake, and Yseulta should have chosen a Pagan, or at the least, someone who lived in the woods all the time, and that he’d figure out how to make it go to the right person.
But she already knew this couldn’t be undone. She could feel the earth’s forests in the back of her mind, a well of calmness and strength. Part of her wanted to run away, but most of her wanted to run back to the greenbelt, or to the house in Ipswich, and touch the dryad again, hug her, let the forest-feeling wrap itself around her completely.
“You wanna hear why I think you’re so freaked out?” James asked. He continued without waiting for her answer. “I think that you want to back out of it because you think you don’t deserve it. You think it’s too good for you.”
She shook her head, but she felt uneasy, which usually meant that James was right.
“You are worthy,” he said. “And even if you weren’t, even if you didn’t deserve it…well, life is often unfair, and sometimes it’s unfair in your favor.”
She shook her head.
“You’ll get used to it. Give it some time.”
She wanted to stay longer, to chat like they used to, but Freddie was fussing in the back room. Kit stood and said her goodbyes. She wanted to talk to Fenwick, tell him about this, tell him about Tali’s reading. What did this mean, now that some of the reading had come true? A new familiar. Her. She was a new familiar. Did this mean that she would also die, or was the becoming a familiar enough of a metaphorical death that it had already happened? She wanted to talk to him about it. If only he were there. It wasn’t the same talking to him on the phone.
She would tell him later, when they were alone. He wouldn’t mind, would he? Marrying a woman who now belonged to the goddess of temperate forests? That Kit was now bound to Yseulta as tightly as Kaa was to her?
A little voice in the back of her head reminded her that Kaa hadn’t yet found a mate, even though he’d wanted to. She pushed that voice aside.
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