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Fickle Muses an online journal of myth and legend

Phoenix by Andre Monserrat
Phoenix
by Andre Monserrat

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In the Wild Wood
by kat heatherington

In the wild wood he awoke,
nested between the tree god’s legs.
Darkness trembled and echoed to the great god’s bellowing voice,
calling to others through the grim night.
Nights were the worst.
He hid, tried to sleep a little,
resting deeply only as dawn shivered over the murky forests
and the god turned his head toward the sun,
reached up his arching arms and
stilled himself to tree, the green life
of the wildwood flowing through him.
No matter where he hid,
the young man woke between those rooted feet.
no matter how far he walked,
searching for his name
and an end to the forest, even for a forgotten seashore
that raged in his blood & murmured of a time ahead,
still his feet found those of the god,
the glade summoned him back to his Mystery.
That he would find the name was certain.
That it would complete him was certain.
When was the question, and he longed
for a now in which he called himself by name
and the wildwoods rang back in answering splendor.
Meanwhile he sighed to sleep in thunderous, creaking night
and dreamt of a girl in animal skins,
hiding in a sea cave, sprayed by salt and hunted.
In the dream he kissed her, and his waking body
smelt the sharp salt scent.  But his eyes opened again
on mossy rooted toes and pillared thighs.

That day a wildcat stalked him in the woods,
silent, just on the edge of vision.
He tried to coax her out,
the dream struggling against his frightened senses,
his body poised to flee, heart leaping forward.
The cat crouched beneath a dark bush,
blinked slowly, and was gone.

That night he could not sleep.  The gods bellowed
and thundered, striding about the glade.
The boy curled in a hollow oak,
heard only his own heart pounding,
saw only the cat’s green eyes,
glowing in the deep green brush,
slowly closing. He rose with the sun, sure she would return,
plunging into the forest in vigorous quest. 
There were no wild cats.
For seven days and nights he searched,
moving farther away from the god-haunted glade, sleepless.
He did not want to sleep for fear
of losing what ground he’d gained,
and losing her thereby, when he woke once more, as always,
in the green god’s glade.
At first frantic with longing, he softened
with the passing days: he’d search forever if he must.
The ocean surged beneath that cat’s gold fur.

When next the young man woke from dreamless sleep
his eyes opened to a roe deer, gazing limpid down at him
between the green god’s feet.
Elated he sprang up, ready to embrace her,
but as a deer she fled, bounding to the forest’s edge.
Just within the trees she stopped,
watchful and attentive, her eyes dark and full on him,
unblinking.  He could not move, rooted to the
god’s green feet with fear of losing her.
After a while she bowed her head to crop the tufted grass,
her eyes never straying from his for long.
Slowly he eased down onto familiar roots,
watching and silent.  He wished himself a deer,
or her a young woman dressed in animal skins,
wind whipped and stung by the salt spray. 
Slowly he reached toward her, her brown fur
gleaming in the sunlight, ears alert and eyes alarmed.
She leapt back between the trees, and as he fancied her
reproachful and disturbed, so he desisted.

When night fell, he was still between the tree god’s legs,
eyes straining as the twilight cloaked her.
He could not remain so lest the heedless wooden limb
in careless swing toward animation crush him in its turn.
She was all shadow.  Bursting with despair he leapt away
as the first great foot crackled up from the earth,
the leaves above shuddered and swayed as branches
reached toward him, curious. 
He feared the awesome strength of the tree god,
ran for the woods as a huge branch swept over him,
twiggish fingers splayed & curled to catch him.
In all these years the god has never held him thus
nor seemed to mind his small tenant.
Now the boy, swept toward the sky in wonder and amaze,
surrounded by the leafy hand, remembers:
The god had not seen him because he has no name,
nothing to be seen by.  He has eaten and slept
for years by the green god’s feet, invisible. 
Why this today? Had the god, stirring the dusk, seen the roe deer
and followed her eyes back to his legs in sudden revelation? 
Or had the mystery nested between his legs
become too sharp, too loud with need and hunger,
to be borne?

There was no answer in the green lit eyes
that blinked from out the leaves.
His mind was silenced by the depth of light and shadow
and the breadth of green within those eyes.
He could not breathe or look away. In his heart
the roe deer looked out with him; the tawny cat
blinked once, and the ocean sighed away in hissing foam.
He felt a twiggy hand caress his shoulder,
shuddered as a thin root pierced his skin,
grew around his nerves, shivered up his spine,
explored his heart.  It was not pain,
but he felt known, and knew himself
an animal life, a beating heart and quickening breath,
an Other to the surging sap and sighing green that held him.
He could not release himself to it. The green god
remained silent, revealing nothing.  The young man felt
a little distance, inside the knowing.
The eyes could see his name, he was sure of it.
They saw right past that missing, longed-for name
into his past, they gazed across his future and into deepening myth.

Slowly, then, the root slithered out of his body,
small filaments only left in his heart and history.
A throaty rumble shivered through the god
as he swept the boy back to the necessary earth.
He rumbled long and deep, a rooted, rocky sound,
escaping finally into his nightly thunder.
The eyes gleamed once, a twilight green,
and the great god turned away to stalk his glade
and sing the Earth’s deep song.

The young man stood rooted
to his memory of fear and eyes and roots,
the sea pounding loud inside his pulse once more.

The next day the young man slept where he had settled
in the god-watched night, in an earthy hollow near the oak.
The young woman who had hidden in the deer crept
silent from the trees and softly blew
a fine white powder in his face.
He breathed deeply and in his dream sought out
the rocky windswept shores again.
She smiled, auburn hair gleaming against dark skin in the sun
as she leaned over him, then backed away.
Light as a deer, swift as a cat she turned to the tree god,
and leapt into his branches.
Up she climbed until she felt him watching,
then stilled herself and waited
until the green gaze blinked unfathomably into her own.

I need his name, she shivered in voiceless leafy language,
desire pulling at her like a tide.  You must release the name for me.
I named him when I saw him and I marked his heart with knowing.
You pulled that name from him, but it is mine, and I will have it back.
Her face lengthened, whiskering towards a cat’s,
fingertip claws cutting the soft bark with urgency.
Please.

The deep green gaze stared silent.  He needed
no probing roots to know her, child of deer and bear,
cat and fox, eagle and salmon, child of the inmost forests,
and the loamy earth.  I cannot give it, he sighed.
It is forbidden – it is not mine to tell.

Then he is not yours either, and I will pull it from you,
said the young woman, her skin shifting as she stirred
and raised up her head. Then you have fulfilled your needs,
and I, mine.

You will set another tale in motion if you do this,
shivered the green god, leaves trembling in the still air.

Be it so, said she.
She shifted on her haunches and reached down
to a slender branch between her thighs. 
Her eyes did not leave the welling green
of the tree god as she pushed and shaped his limb
to her desire.  Beneath her hands the firm branch shortened,
smoothed, gleamed with hardened light. 
She reached into her pouch and blew a handful
of soft green dust onto the branch. 

You will plant in me the name, she said.
She stroked the branch three times,
until it almost burst into new leaf. 
The green god watched in silence.
Smiling then, she mounted it,
pushed the short firm limb smoothly
inside her body and clenched herself around it.
The waiting leaves held back
they had no light to reach towards.

The name, she said, and clenched her body tighter
than the warm earth on his roots. 
He felt the sap move outward.
Branches shook around her desperately,
the air a storm of leaves.  The green god swayed and shook,
and she held on, arms and thighs wrapped
around the branch whose smooth form she enclosed.
She shuddered and shook with the god,
and still she held.  The greengold sap rose higher.
The green god’s taproot shivered,
deep below the stones in hidden aquifer,
impossibly deep within the earth.
Its tip, immersed in prehistoric waters, quivered.
The quiver ran from hidden pool, up with the growing root
through clay and bedrock, loam and living soil,
’til it reached the green god’s pillared thighs.
His trunk legs trembled, he arched and swayed with quivering
water and the storied name.  Still she held on,
green eyes locked on living green
as the branches bucked and leapt
and leaves flew in the air around her, a whirling storm.

At last the quivering water shivered into the branch she rode.
Eyes widening in triumph and need,
she rocked her body on the branch until she quivered with the tree,
and hot greengold sap burst forth within her.
The tiny water from the earth’s core followed quickly.
She had the name.

Slowly her arms and thighs relaxed, her back unbent.
She closed her eyes beneath the tree god’s solemn gaze
and bowed her head. She had the name. 
It rose, floating on her heart’s steady tide,
encased in amber sap, just within reach of need.

She eased up off the branch and breathed upon it
till the waiting leaves broke upwards toward the light.
Then she turned away from the forest’s gaze,
crouched on an outer limb and leapt,
shifting to an eagle as she flew,
the sea’s distant roar in each beat
of long wings above the forest air. 

~~~

He woke knowing the way to the sea.
He woke knowing that the tree god
would not mislead his steps till he returned,
nor pull him in the night back to the glade,
that he was free at last to go.
He woke, for the first time, beneath a different tree,
curled in a small hollow of earth.
The glade was strewn with leaves.
He wondered how many days he had slept.

Then he bowed before the green god,
turned towards the sun,
and walked into the forest. 

 

II.

In the wild wood she awoke,
an hour’s journey from the boy’s god-haunted grove.
She felt his thoughts stirring,
knew he would wake and follow her,
knew he would find her no matter where she went.
She stretched her hands, half paws,
towards the rising sun and set out.

The woods grew darker as she made her path among them,
leafy green giving way to rocky soil and dusky fir.
As she reached a hillside she once knew well,
her body shifted, a cat once more,
soundless on the deep-needled earth.
She padded up the hill, searching out an old scent.
The trail was there, thin and musky, fading.
She slowed her pace, steps soft as a shadow.
when she reached a cave she once called home,
the threshold from which her mother watched her leave
with knowing trepidation, long ago,
the shapechanged girl slowed so much
she seemed barely to be moving,
the thin idea of a tawny wildcat
approaching the rock’s deep fissure.
Softly she stepped to the fissure’s edge,
waited for her eyes to see into the fullness of the dark,
stooped to sniff again the threshold
and stepped inside.  Nothing awaited her.
The scentless silence rent her heart
the expected gone, the unfamiliar emptiness awaiting.
Swiftly she stalked the length of the dusty cave,
then back again, sniffing each hollow in the earth,
each heap of dust or small cracked bone
that littered the floor.  They were gone.
No one has used this place in many seasons.
She shifted her form, a slender red-haired girl again,
and sat at the fissure’s edge,
the now-westering sun in her eyes,
her back breathing with the cavern’s small cold breath.
Around her sunlight dripped like water
from blue-tinged spruce needles,
fell to the loamy forest floor upon
small glimmering flowers & delicate faery leaves.
At last she turned, faced the cool earthy breeze again, & rose.
She has not been abandoned,
any more than she has abandoned the boy.
Back into the rock’s wide crack she walked,
feeling the coarse grey walls with her fingertips,
rubbing her toes along the softness of the sandy sleeping-place.
The crevice narrowed to a too-thin crack of earth.
Her fingers found its walls, felt the widening change.
The crevice curved just beyond.  Breathing quickly,
she slipped her small body between the stones and edged forward.
One breath, another, a third.  She was through.
The air was moving.
The darkness was complete.
But no stone confronted her,
her outstretched hands met no resistance.
Slowly she edged forward, single step by single shuffling step
until stone met her hands.
She turned and reached, found herself surrounded
on all sides by the stone.
Sobbing slightly, she sank to her knees
to wait the disappointment out.
The air still moved, and she thought it smelt of water
and of sunlight.
Her hands reached out, hoping beyond her heart,
and met with no resistance.  Carefully,
she slipped forward, found
the roof of the low passage, its widening walls.
Softly her breath released
perhaps that scent of sunlight
was more than hope alone.
On her knees she crept into darkness,
until she could not feel the roof above her
and a thin light edged through a starry darkness.
When she rose, when her eyes sorted out the path beneath her,
she recognized a place she’d only seen in dreams.
A deep lake, still and cold,
rippled silently a little ways away.
The cavern was enormous, bat wings rustled invisible heights,
and sand shifted beneath her feet.
Tiny drops of water picked up a glimmering thread of light
and dripped it down spark by spark to the waiting waters.
Long roots and trees of rock elongated towards the water,
or rose up from it gleaming.
The place felt holy, deeply enchanted,
each ripple of pale light illuminating
however briefly, a drop of deeply veiled mystery.

Long she stood by the lake in wonder.
Only a change in the light, a shift towards gold,
reminded her of her search.
Breath ragged in her chest, she walked the sand that skirted the lake,
through starry darkness towards the light.

At the mouth of the cave was a cave
and a small, quick-moving spider.
She stepped across the thin gauze web that tracked along the floor,
careful not to disturb the beguiling weave,
but did not think to ask this guardian who last came this way.
The spider crouched in her web, her many eyes watching many things.
She did not volunteer any answers.

A smaller, rounded cave opened
at the young woman’s left, its mouth now pierced by sunlight.
At once she saw nothing lived there,
and stepped past its mouth into the brilliant day.
A long grass meadow met her,
ringed about by slender quaking aspens,
one friendly towering oak that arched over the dual cavern mouth
and a small infinity of butterflies.
Laughing she ran down the meadow,
riotous with brightly colored wings,
her laughter a flower among flowers,
a brightness amidst a larger brightness.

~~~

The woods were dark around him when he stopped to rest.
All day his heart leapt ahead of him through the woods,
from oak shadow to stone to rustling undergrowth and vanishing deer.
He wondered if he tried to turn around,
if the way back would be closed to him.
It doesn’t matter, he grinned and rested and breathed where he halted,
in a small beech glade.  Rough mossy stones lay tumbled in the east;
he settled down beneath a tree’s firm roots, away from them.
The night sifted down in webbed twilight through the branches,
and he slept, hearing the tree-tossed stars sing softly to him. 

The next day while she stalked an elusive scent,
the boy stalked her own,
tracing her movements through the woods
in the feel her feet left on the earth.
At midday as she reached the hill
the flicker of her changing caught
in the corner of his eye and he approached
but softly, unsure of what he wanted
now that she was close.
He felt a danger in her as a cat,
and followed quietly at a distance.
Her body tensed and focused on the trail,
so intent on finding her way, and finding out the changes,
her whole body leaning forward with each step,
that she never noticed him behind.

He waited, when she went into the crevice
something was amiss, a wrongness he could not place.
When she emerged in human form,
resting between two worlds with head in hands,
he waited, still unsure.  His body pulled him towards her,
but a new awareness flickered
around his mind and rooted him to earth.
He thought of the green god,
roots plunging deep in the soil, then
arcing up in gouts of earth and stone
as the god awakened and began to walk.
He thought his own roots were moving with him thus,
and safely settled in to wait her out.
He watched her stand and return to explore the stony fissure,
and he waited.
Long he waited, and the sun
slanted lower till his body’s pull overcame his caution
and he stood.

The cave was empty when he entered it,
the long-time lair of a cougar perhaps,
but long disused.
No trace of the girl could be seen.
The danger that surrounded him seemed old,
itself disused and almost out of place,
concealing a deeper mystery
running like cool water beneath his rootish toes.
He followed it, the mystery and the girl,
deep into earthy darkness
and thence to starry water.  A shadow flickered in the light
that dripped in fragments from the rocky mantle and he sped
with racing heart and silent feet
toward the changing light.

~~~

She danced in the color-strewn meadow
until a shadow persisted at the edges of the brightness
long enough to give her pause.
Eyes alight with green wonder she peered between the aspens,
but the shadow vanished.
Each time she moved it hovered at the border of her sight
eluding interpretation. 
At last she stopped moving and waited,
still as a shadow herself, her back to the now-distant hillside.
Then the cat appeared.
Almost invisible, a dark gold shadow,
seen because she wanted to be seen.
The girl’s quick heart beat loudly in her breast, at last, at last!
She bowed her head
before unfolding from the green earth and starting forward.

The cougar stood when she did,
and paced deliberately away. 
The girl neither paused nor quickened,
and the cat never left her sight,
glancing yellow-eyed back to ensure she followed.
Up a long tree-shadowed hill they paced,
under pine and aspen, oak and elder,
over blossoms in stunning profusion,
through the last hour of easy sunlight.
She had eyes only for the cat,
who led her ever upward ’til they came
to a fir-encircled hollow,
small and warm, skirted by young pines
growing up through down-reaching fir fronds,
smelling strongly of home.
She had not lost them,
nor been abandoned the tawny cougar
led her into this new piney den
and lay herself down, purring huskily
from deep within her chest.
The girl’s head bowed again,
entering this unfamiliar place that smelled so right,
and she cast herself to earth alongside the cat,
and pressed her ear to the rumbling ribs,
and wept with love and relief,
running her fingers through the short thick fur,
and laughing in her tears.

At last the old cat nudged her with a look
at her strong human body and the girl,
red-faced but laughing still, changed form
until she matched her mother,
a lighter, smaller golden cat,
her eyes an unsettling green.
They settled down to sleep,
warm flanks curled together,
heads almost touching
as the last light left the sky.

~~~

The young man stood at the clearing’s edge,
transfixed with earthly longing.
Butterflies swirled in flittering spirals,
russet & turquoise, around the dancing woman.
Her laughter rang like a rippling stream through his heart,
& her hair shone brighter than butterflies’ wings,
copper within the buttery sunlight.

He could not move, captivated by her uplifted voice
and bounding legs. Shining with delight & wonder,
still he stood,
and let her mystery pierce him to the core.

Then the sunlight moved, a single ray
leapt from behind the quivering aspen
and tears sprang to his eyes in sudden brightness.
He settled to earth at the meadow’s edge,
his body limned in light,
and the girl fell silent,
searching for a shadow, and then still.
A grayness watched them from the woods but would not
settle in his eye – shadow of a power of this place.
She followed it south up a steeply wooded hill
and he knew he would not follow.
The cave was at the center –
she would find him in the morning.
He would not risk her shadow’s ire,
the cougar-cavern’s danger coalesced
into a melting charcoal wariness.

Resigned to wait, he turned back towards the cavern.
A spider crouched in glossy blackness
on the lintel, her web a tracery of magic on the stones.
Are you the guardian of this place? he asked.
Her many eyes shone depthless from her web.
I am a guardian, she said.  But you do not need guarding.
What do I need? he asked, feeling the hollow
where his name should be throb fitfully inside him.
The spider laughed.  No more or less than what you’ll get
if you stay your path,
said she.
He paused, then asked, Do you know who I am? My name?
The words were soft, pulled from him by her riddle,
a canny creature of the night, she might know anything.
The spider’s voice was thin when she replied.
From me you will not hear it.

But you know.  Certainty settled in him.
I am not the only one, the leggéd darkness answered.
Corriga whom you seek has a story to tell you.
Corriga?
The shapechanged child you followed here.
She is beautiful and powerful,
said the boy.
All things have beauty and power each to their own,
replied the spider.  Yourself among them, and your story.
She scuttled sideways up the cavern mouth to peer into his eyes.
What is to be shall be, she said.  Do not push
the mystery further than it wishes to be pushed
or it will slip away and leave you
with hands of tarnished moonlight and eyes that cannot see.
What is meant to be, shall be.

Her many eyes gleamed brightsome from the stone,
and then she slipped into a crack within the wall and vanished.
Which mystery? the young man whispered.
The spider’s spun voice echoed,
a quivering strand of silk from out the wall.
They are all one, she said, and mystery is at the core of magic.
And her voice, too, was gone.

Am I magic? thought the nameless boy,
standing still in the cave mouth
as the sun’s last light slipped silent from the sky.
Between two worlds, awash in wonder and the depth
of what he wished he knew, he let the night ease into him,
& starry darkness glimmer from both worlds,
the silent lake behind his back,
the echoing brilliance of the star-stuffed sky,
and settle itself, with velvet touch and rustling wind,
into his questing heart.

 

III.

For three days, the boy awoke to hope,
watched the sun cross the clearing’s sky,
drank of the crystalline lake,
and slept in mingled hope and disappointment.
When the fourth sun slipped its light into his eyes,
he woke to sudden wonder –
Corriga crouched a few handbreadths away,
green eyes alert with curiosity.

“Corriga,” he blurted, so eager to say her name and hold her there,
afraid she’d flee if he but moved, and disappear forever.
She smiled, surprised, and wondered
if she spoke his name, if he’d then leave,
no longer bound to her.
Her eyes looked on his body in fond curiosity
drawn to him but not compelled.
The early light reflected the supple satin of his skin.
She reached to caress his warmth
his breath quick beneath her hand,
dark eyes unwavering on hers as he rose.
His name washed up in the tides of her heart,
caught on the shore and in her throat.
“Dauro,” she said, her hand
gently resting above his heart.
His eyes grew wide with longing and fulfillment.
He reached up to catch her hand and hold it there,
pressed firmly to his chest,
her fingers understanding
the quickening rhythm within.

“Dauro,” he repeated, at first softly,
tasting the tree within it,
savoring the moment of possession,
of revelation and completion.
“Dauro.”  And then shouted it, “Dauro!”
And the woods rang back a shivering, leafy answer,
the longed-for recognition he had craved,
the woods themselves aware
and knowing, now the name of the tree-god’s chosen son.  Dauro.

Corriga gave it back again, “Dauro, Dauro,” her heart opening
to warmth and easy splendour,
watching his face transform.
His eyes gleamed with inner sunlight,
his mind enraptured by the sound he so long sought.

At last his eyes touched hers again,
the brightness striking sparks between them.
“I saw you by the sea,” he said.
The wonder, now, was hers.
“By the sea?” her hand pulled back a little and he clasped it,
their linked hands between them on the earth. 
Small tinkling trills of water threaded from the cave behind them,
the aspens shivered and laughed and ran with liquid sunlight.
Her skin was bronze, his copper,
and from the darksome door between the worlds,
the spider looked upon their beauty and their stories,
as she walked the filaments of her woven history
and bound their threads into it.
“In my dream,” Dauro replied,
unwilling to let go their touch,
lest she depart now that he had his name.
She did not pull away this time,
but wrapped her fingers close about his own.
“When did you dream me?” she asked.
“One night before I saw you as a cat.
I knew I had to follow, but you vanished.”
“I had to get your name back,” she replied.
“The green god pulled it from me long ago,
then claimed it was not his to give away.
I named you when I saw you, and I had to be the one
to confer your name upon you
lest you be bound to the green-god’s glade forever.”
“When did you see me?” he questioned,
confusion settling thicker than before.
“When we were children,” she replied,
“The autumn that I first learned how to shift,
I saw you in the woods and took this form,
and as I did, I knew your name
as well as I knew my own.
I did not think to give it to you then,
for I did not know you lacked it.
I wandered long in different forms,
to the sea and back again as you have dreamt,
believing we would meet again in time.
But I stumbled upon a secret of the green god,
and he rooted your name away while I was sleeping,
his tendrils wrapping round and sucking it
from my blood into his sap. It was long
before I knew how to reclaim it
with harm to none. And so I waited.”

“A secret of the tree-god?” the boy returned in wonder.
“Does he who spends his nights in bellowing
hoard secrets in the day?”

“I cannot say,” Corriga shrugged.  “I did not mean to find him out.
And I regretted it.  I gave it back to him
in leafy life when he gave up your name.
He did not make the trade willingly,
but neither did he stop me.  He said
we’d set another tale in motion.
I hope that tale is our own.”

“You will not leave me, then, who have sought
the answer to my heart’s long yearning?”
“I will not leave you willingly,” said she.
Their fingers curled together between warm earth and sunlight,
and he felt his every prayer had been delivered,
his soul complete and named,
and as suddenly companioned.
Her green eyes watched him steadily.
“Tell me about the sea,” he asked.
“My tale is a long one,” she replied.
“Tell it anyway,” said he, and she began.