Deep in the forest, under the Great Grey Oak, sat a small house. It was a cozy stone house, with a crooked fence surrounding it, and a pebble-strewn path leading to its front door. Wild flax lined the fence – delicate indigo flowers shedding their petals like blue snow. Atop the house was a moss-covered thatched roof, and a stone and mortar chimney from which smoke curled lazily into the damp forest air. And in the yard lay a small garden, with many vegetables, and a few colorful flowers. A sturdy scarecrow hung over the garden, silently watching over everything.
It was a house of mystery, a house of stories, and a house of small joys and great sorrows. A house of much work, and little acclaim. A solemn, quiet, unassuming little house.
One day, as she was walking through the forest collecting mushrooms and herbs, a young woman wandered near the house. It immediately intrigued her, this small, well-tended house, sitting alone in the deep forest. Who could possibly live out here, so alone, she thought. It must surely be someone old, to want to be so secluded from the bustle of village and city.
But just as she reached to open the gate on the crooked fence, a voice called from behind her,
“You cannot enter, fair maid.” A young man, dressed in plain homespun stood quietly beneath the trees on the other side of the path. Dark eyes peered out from under the worn, wide-brimmed hat he wore.
The young woman spun in alarm, raising her hand as if to ward off a blow. “Oh! I’m sorry- oh, you frightened me,” she breathed.
“Tis alright, but you may not enter here. Tis my home, and mine alone.” The young man crossed over the forest path and walked to the gate of his yard, limping slowly, and with the aid of a gnarled oak staff. “I am sorry, fair maid, but you must go now, for I am to be about my work, and must be alone. You may not come along with me.” And with those words, the young man turned away and entered his yard.
“Oh, but what is your name,” called the young woman, “My name is Kora, and, I have walked such a long way today, may I at least warm my hands by your fire – just for a moment?”
“I am called Anku,” he replied evenly, “and my fire is only ash and the remnants of smoke. There is no flame here to warm you. Now be on your way, fair Kora, and you will soon come to your home.”
As the door slowly swung shut, Kora watched Anku’s face dim and darken until at the very last second, his dark eyes flashed up, looked directly at her, and sparked with light, just as the door closed with a final thud.
Stunned, the young woman mused all the way home on the strange encounter. Who was this man, Anku? Why did he live way out there in the forest, underneath the Great Grey Oak? It was the oldest tree in the whole of the forest, she knew this from the tales of the old ones, but she’d never been told that someone lived there. She must know more about this man. And so, leaving her basket full of herbs and mushrooms at home, she set off to speak to the eldest woman in the village. Old Cate would know, she knew all the stories.
“Ah, child! Come in, come in! Here, sit with me by the fire,” Old Cate coaxed the young woman towards her fireplace when Kora reached the Elder’s home. “My old eyes are not so good as they used to be, and my bones grow weary with the damp and cold. Come, sit and tell me of the forest.”
“Elder Cate, I met a strange young man in the forest today,” the young woman began.
“A young man, ye say,” chuckled Old Cate, “and who was this lucky young man, to meet ye in the forest?”
“I’m not sure, Elder,” the young woman shifted nervously on her seat, “he says his name is Anku, and he lives all alone in a little stone house under the Great Grey Oak, deep in the heart of the forest. Do you know of him, Elder?”
A look of great horror crossed Old Cate’s face. “Ach!” Old Cate clutched her chest. “Child! Ye be leavin’ this one alone! Ye don’t go back to the Great Grey Oak, no ye don’t! He’s not for the likes of ye!” The old woman grabbed the younger woman’s arms, with far more strength than she ought to have, and shook the younger woman firmly. “Ye listen to Old Cate, make sure, ye hear and obey this! Don’t go back to the Great Grey Oak!”
“Alright, Elder Cate!” Kora was panicked by how strong the old woman was, and by how vehement her words. The young man hadn’t seemed at all dangerous or scary, simply sad, and a little mysterious. To be honest, the Kora was more intrigued now than before. If he could bring this much emotion to the Eldest of her village, what must his true story be? She determined to find out for herself, but first to set the old woman’s mind to rest.
“T’will be alright, Elder, I am not at all afraid of the forest, for I wander there every day to collect the herbs I need for the village, and whatever else the forest provides to me in my searches. Today I found some lovely mushrooms, I’ll bring you some later. And anyway, Anku was just a wounded, sad young man. He said he just wanted to be alone to do his work. Really, everything’s fine, Elder Cate.” With this, Kora gently freed her arms from the elder’s grasp, and smoothed her sleeves back down on her arms. “But now I must be going to help Mother prepare the evening meal. Thank you for your time.”
The young woman stood and bobbed a small curtsey to the elder, then bustled quickly out the door of her hut, and away down the lane to her own home, never once looking back. If she had, maybe she wouldn’t have been so quick to leave, as the elder stared after her, tears gliding a silent trail down her face.
The next day, Kora was so busy hanging the herbs that she had collected the day before, washing up the rest of the mushrooms, and sorting the good ones from the ones to be turned again into their garden plot, in the hopes of growing them at home, that she forgot about her decision of the night before to go back to the forest in search of Anku. But as she was helping her mother, Erinas, in their small garden, she suddenly remembered Anku’s garden. Looking around at her mother’s garden, she realized that Anku had vegetables and flowers in his growing little plot that she’d never seen before. Flourishing under the gaze of that solemn scarecrow, and the guardian branches of the Great Grey Oak, it beckoned her to come back to the forest and explore its strange contents. Seized with a sudden desire to see them, smell them, she brushed her palms on her skirt, and rose from her work.
“Mother,” Kora began, tentatively, “I just remembered, I saw some lovely berries in the forest yesterday that were just gone ripe, but I didn’t have room for them in the basket. I’m just going to go fetch them for our dinner.”
Erinas gazed after her child, “Alright, daughter, but be home before dark. You know I worry about you alone in the forest when night falls, no matter that you practically live there. I like to see your face across from mine over our evening meal, and know that you are with me.”
“Yes, Mother, I’ll return shortly.” Kora almost danced as she ran to the house, pulling the strings of her work-apron loose and grabbed her now empty basket. A quick trip, Kora thought to herself. And maybe, just maybe, Anku would let her have some of the curious vegetables for Mother and her to try. Or maybe some of the lovely flowers, to grace their table. Well, there was no harm in asking, now, was there?
The trip through the forest passed unnoticed before Kora’s eyes, as she sought the Great Grey Oak and the little stone house that lay beneath it. Only briefly did she pause to gather some of the berries that she honestly had seen the day before, only to leave them for a full basket of mushrooms and herbs the village so desperately needed for its healer, her mother, to use as cures. She’d make a couple of pies in contrition for her small fib. One for her and Mother, and one for Elder Cate.
As she drew near to the clearing that held Anku’s home, she slowed her pace, so as to gather her breath. Didn’t want to appear as though she’d run the whole way, even though in reality, she had.
Peering around, Kora saw that the yard and surrounding area seemed to be deserted. The smoke she’d seen coming from the chimney the day before was gone. Had Anku left? Or was he huddled inside the cold, stone house, hiding from her and the rest of the world? Kora couldn’t resist the temptation, and she gently lifted the latch on the yard’s crooked gate, causing it to make a small creaking noise. Kora froze, casting her eyes all around her to see if anyone had noticed the noise, but there was no movement, no sound.
Emboldened, Kora stepped through the gate and closed it carefully behind her. She was there! Tentatively, she crept up to the front stoop of the house, and tapped lightly on the door.
“Hello? Anku, are you at home?” Kora called softly. “Hello? It’s Kora, and I’ve come to ask about your garden.”
When there was no answer, Kora turned around, unsure of what to do next. Not wanting to offend someone who could turn out to be a new friend, she didn’t really want to take anything without permission. But, maybe, well maybe he wouldn’t miss just one small vegetable? Out of so many – and from this side of the fence, Kora could see that Anku’s garden was much more extensive than she remembered it being yesterday. So many lovely, ripe vegetables. Surely, he wouldn’t miss just one little one. Something for her and Mother to enjoy with their dinner.
Kora continued to look around the clearing, watching for any signs of movement as she entered Anku’s garden, and quickly chose one of the smaller things that resembled, to her, a red squash. This would cook up lovely for the two of them at home this evening. And it was only a little one. There were much larger, prettier ones than the one she secreted into her basket. Surely, this would be alright. Just in case, Kora left a pile of the largest berries from her basket on a piece of bark just near Anku’s front door. As payment, she told herself. Fair’s fair, after all.
Once at home, Kora quickly got the rest of the berries ready for the pies, and after making a lovely crust, put them in the oven to bake. Pulling the flame-colored squash from her basket, Erinas held it up and asked, “What is this, daughter, and where on this earth did you find it? I’ve never seen its like before.”
“Oh, it was in a patch in the forest, Mother. It’s a squash, so let’s cook it up and have it with our dinner, alright?” Kora kept her eyes firmly on the oven, not wanting her mother to see the truth in her face. Mother could always see the truth on her, whether she willed it or no.
Luckily, the healer was a little absent-minded that evening over another matter. One of her patients wasn’t recovering from a cough like he should, and it was weighing on Erinas’ mind. More than some strange squash, at any rate, so she handed the thing over to Kora to prepare.
“Oh, alright, daughter, ” she huffed. “And while you prepare this, I’m going to walk over and check on Jed once more. He’s abed with a fever, and I need to look in on him. I have another mixture I need to try for this illness. Maybe it’ll turn the tide for him.”
Smiling to herself, Kora nodded her head and started chopping up the squash, its deep yellow flesh proving to her that it would be edible, and most likely, delicious. She added a dollop of their carefully hoarded butter and placed it in a covered pot in the oven, next to the pies, and replied “Alright, Mother. Would that be the elder and yarrow flower tea that you brewed this morning?”
“Yes, dear, I added some hyssop and mint as well, to calm his cough. We’ll see if it is enough. But just in case, you go ahead and eat when the meal is ready. I may stay a while with Jed, to make sure the tea helps, and that he drinks all of it.” Erinas shook her head as she took the covered jar of cooled tea from the sideboard. Jed was a stubborn old coot, but a kind man and a good father, nonetheless. She grabbed her shawl from where it hung next to the door, wrapping it over her head, to keep the evening’s chill at bay, and slipped out the door into the glow of a slowly setting sun.
Kora whiled away the early evening, mending a torn shawl, and darning a couple of stockings. The weather was turning chilly earlier as the year turned toward harvest, and it was best to have the warmer clothes mended and ready for wear now. As the rich, fruity smell of the pies mingled with the savory aroma of the squash, Kora found herself anxiously awaiting the evening meal. Oh, what a smell! She could barely wait!
Finally, she could bear it no longer, and peered into the oven. The pies were perfectly bubbly, so she removed them to cool on the sideboard. But the covered pot was granted an honored place right in the middle of the tiny table they used for meals. Lifting the lid, Kora was astonished to find that the squash had shrunk in the oven! It was only a couple of mouthfuls, at most! But, oh, those tiny morsels were so mouth-watering, so smooth in texture, Kora couldn’t resist. Using the serving spoon, she lifted them, one by one, and placed them gently in her mouth. As she ate, she could feel the buttery softness of them, melting on her tongue, and leaving only a hint of nuttiness behind. Oh, they truly were heavenly! But such a small amount! After three bites, the pot was completely empty. Not even a scrap left behind for her mother.
Kora was instantly remorseful. How could she eat the whole thing? And what would her mother say when she returned? In a flurry of movements, Kora took the covered pot to the wash basin and cleaned what was left, just a smear of butter, from the pot. She then filled it with fresh water, and added a portion of the salted pork, and some of the vegetables she and her mother had harvested only that morning. This would serve as a stew, at least, and knowing her mother, it would be hours before she returned from Jed’s. Mother never ate this late at night, anyway, but went straight to bed, exhausted from her healer’s duties. She set the again-covered pot into the oven, and banked the fire so that it would burn, but slowly. This way, the stew would cook, but not so quickly as to boil down to nothing by morning. By morning it would be perfect for their mid-day meal. There, problem solved.
Satisfied that this should suffice as a way to make up for the squash, Kora made her way back to her bed and lay down for the night. She’d see what was what in the morning.
Kora rose the next morning, only to find that her mother had not returned in the night. Truthfully, Kora thought, this was best, as she had not slept well the night before. Her dreams had been plagued with half-formed images of a sorrowful and uneasy nature. She’d woken with a sadness hanging in her heart, as though she’d lost something precious. Her mother would surely see her discomfort, she would never leave her alone till Kora told the whole of the tale. Best Mother not see her this way, and the girl could pull herself together during her morning chores. Surely Erinas would return shortly, if just to check on her daughter and maybe to collect some more herbs for tea.
Just as Kora was pulling the simmering stew-pot from the oven, her mother did indeed come home. She moved slowly into the kitchen, setting her basket and shawl on their table. “Oh, Kora, such a night,” Erinas slumped softly into one of the chairs. “Be a dear and make some of your lovely relaxing tea, and have a chat with your old mother.”
“Oh, Mother, you’ll never be old,” Kora coaxed a weary smile from Erinas with her words, “I’ll make the tea, and while you wait, here, have a bit of stew I made last night. I know you haven’t eaten, and you need to keep up your strength.” Quickly she ladled some of the fragrant stew into a bowl and placed it before her mother. “Easy now, mother, it’s straight from the oven, it is, and hot.”
Erinas patted Kora’s hand as she leaned over the table to pick up a spoon. “I don’t know what I’d do without you my dear Kora. Ever since the day I first held you in my arms, you have been my heart.” She smiled a deep, comforted smile at her daughter, and began to eat the stew. “Oh, this reminds me, did you eat that odd squash last night? What was it like?”
Kora flicked her eyes to the side, a little guiltily. “Yes, Mother, I did eat the squash. As a matter of fact, it was strange. I cut it up like we normally do, and put it in the pot to cook, but when I opened it, there were only three bites to be had. I am sorry, Mother, but I ate them all.” Sitting primly in the chair, Kora folded her hands in her lap and stared at the grain of the wooden table.
“Oh, that’s alright, dear, you don’t have to feel guilty!” Erinas laughed softly, and playfully chucked her daughter under the chin. “Look up, child, it was just a silly squash! And with this lovely stew to be had, what am I wanting with some old, strange vegetable? Now,” Erinas looked more closely at her daughter, “Tell me what’s really going on, daughter. I see in your face that you slept little better than I, but not for the same reasons.”
“Ah, really Mother, it was nothing, just some bad dreams, that’s all. I’ll be fine. But you, you need some sleep.” Kora stood away from the table and proceeded to clean up the morning’s meal. The stew could sit, covered, on the stovetop till the noon meal, and there would still be enough for the both of them. All it would take is to add a little water, and a quick heating on the stove, and it would be ready. But she needed to get her mother’s mind off this subject, and quickly.
“How is Jed this morning, Mother? Did his fever break last night? Did the tea work?” Kora scrambled with questions as she worked the hand pump on the counter to bring water into the basin for washing up. Thankfully, the water began to flow quickly, and she was able to muffle her nervous movements in the splashing of the water.
“Better, yes, and yes, Kora!” Erinas smiled at her daughter’s movements. She knew that the girl was hiding something, but she’d get to it eventually. Usually, when Kora’s guard was down, while doing the gardening, or while working on the evening’s mending. When her hands were busy, her mind concentrated more on the task, than on what the mouth was saying. That was the time for the truth to come out. “Jed will soon be on the mend, as long as I can get him to agree to not go wading in the ice-cold deeper waters of the river at this time of year. One of these years, he’ll catch his death in that awful river.” At this, Erinas’ face fell, slightly. That was how Kora’s father had passed. The river was the village’s lifeblood, she knew, bringing fresh water, fish in the warmer months, and traders from upriver and down. But it was treacherous, too. She didn’t want any more of the villagers to be lost that way.
“Enough,” Erinas stated, and slapped her palms on her legs. “It’s off for a nap, I am, to catch up with the day. You, Kora, if you would please go out into the forest, and see if you can scare up some more of the ingredients for the new tea? I used most of it on Jed last night, so we should really stock up on it, before the cold really sets in. We may need more this winter.” Kora nodded her head as she continued to wash the few dishes. A small, secret smile crept across her face as she thought about the chance to see Anku again. Hopefully, he’d be home today, and she could speak to him a little more. Maybe he’d let her in and tell her about his garden, his work, or maybe even let her into the house! She felt strongly that, if she could ever get him to let her in, she’d understand him so much better.
Little more than an hour later, Kora found herself coming upon the clearing in which sat the little house. But before she could cross the patch of sunlight and shade that sheltered Anku’s place, she noticed some movement across the way. From under the trees on the far side of the clearing, Anku walked slowly, holding hands with another woman! Kora ducked to one side of the path, tucking herself quickly behind a clump of brambly bushes.
Anku didn’t look around as he led the woman to his gate and through, only to take her directly to the house! Kora gasped as she watched the woman, who seemed to be crying and trembling quietly. Anku was gentle, tender almost, as he placed his hand on her back, stroking her long dark hair, and speaking softly into her ear. Who was this woman? And why was Anku looking at her so? Was this a wife? A sister? Oh, please, thought Kora to herself, please let that be his sister, and not his wife.
Once the two of them had entered the house, and Anku had closed the door behind them, Kora snuck out from behind the brambles. Her skirt snagged for a moment, but she pulled free easily, and hurried across the clearing to the side of the house. She was aghast at herself, but she couldn’t help it. Seeing that Anku had left the gate open ever so slightly, she snuck into the garden surrounding the house, and crept ever closer to the small, open window. Maybe, just maybe she could hear something to soothe her jealous heart.
But what she heard shocked her even more than her own actions in trespassing.
“Now, my dear, let me take the burden for you, and this won’t hurt at all.” Anku’s low voice coaxed, “You come along with me, and we’ll see this right.”
“Oh, but my husband, my little son! How they will miss me!” The dark-haired woman was heard to cry. “I cannot leave them all alone!” Kora was stunned to hear that the woman was married! What was happening? Was Anku running away with this woman?
“Come, my dear, you know that you cannot go back. Let us go now, for I will journey with you, at least to the gateway. You will not be long alone.”
Kora scrambled to hide behind the barrels of rainwater that stood next to the house, to be hidden just in time to see Anku and the dark-haired woman leave from the back door! Kora hadn’t even known there was a back door on Anku’s house. But they stepped out, with Anku holding the other woman’s hand, the other arm circling protectively around her, guiding her in the direction of the Great Grey Oak tree. Now that Kora was back this far into his yard, she could see a tiny white gate, almost buried in the greenery, that stood next to the Oak. It gleamed with almost a light of its own, and when Anku touched it, it swung easily open, only to show a blackness that Kora had never noticed in the forest. It truly was dark there near the massive tree. The darkness almost seemed to slide forward out of the gate, it was so thick there.
“Alright, my lady, from here you must go on through. But do not fear, for there will be someone on the other side to aid you.” Anku guided the woman toward the gate, bowing slightly as she passed through it. And, just as suddenly as the snapping of the gate’s latch, the woman was gone! There was no lingering sight of her, no sound of her movements – she was simply not there!
Kora gasped, and Anku spun around only to pin her in her place with his dark gaze.
“What do you here, my lady?” Anku stalked to where Kora huddled, anger plain in his eyes as he grasped her hand and helped her to stand upright. “You are not meant to be here.”
Kora could feel Anku’s hand tremble with a fine rage, and his shoulders shook with it.
“Now, what do I do?” Kora saw Anku raise his hands to the sky, as though pleading. “What did you see? Tell me!”
Kora shrank back from the emotions crossing Anku’s face. Disbelief, anger, despair, it was hard to imagine so many emotions all crowding in one person at the same time, but there they were.
“Anku, please,” Kora trembled, not in fear of Anku, or his anger, but in fear of what she’d done, how shamefully she’d acted. “I am sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude, or to spy, not really! You just, I mean, I like you… and then, that woman…and I, well,” Kora hung her head, tears beginning to flow softly and silently down her face. “I was jealous.”
Anku stared in disbelief at the young woman with her hair hanging limply in her face. No. No, this couldn’t be, he thought to himself. But when he reached out and cupped her chin, she raised her eyes to his, and he saw it. The glint in her eye. The spark.
“You ate one of the vegetables, didn’t you?” Anku whispered. “Oh, Gods, you ate one of them.” And thinking back, he suddenly remembered something out of the ordinary. “You left the berries on my doorstep. That’s what they were for, weren’t they? Kora?”
In a small, breathless voice, Kora replied, “Yes.”
Anku dropped Kora’s chin from his hand and staggered back, just two steps, but enough to reach out and steady himself against the tree that stood there. Emotions stunned into numbness, the rough texture of the bark was a comfort to Anku, proving to him that at least he could still feel something other than shock. He dug his fingers hard into the skin of the tree and he turned away from the young woman, trying to regain his composure.
Kora, terrified that she had ruined her chances, and that Anku now hated her, immediately spun on her heel and ran for the front gate. Dropping her basket, she grabbed the gate handle and twisting it, flung the gate open, and tore off in the direction of her village and home. Anku, stunned, barely realized she had turned, much less fled, and before he could yell for her to stop, she had disappeared down the path, leaving only her basket behind as evidence that she had been there at all.
As she raced for home, Kora’s heart felt as though it was breaking into a million tiny pieces, only to lay shattered on the forest path behind her. There was no way Anku would ever forgive her for trespassing, for stealing from his garden! For watching him, no, Kora shook her head in self-hatred – for spying on him. She had snuck into his garden, had violated his privacy, and had stolen from and spied on him. He would hate her forever.
Great wracking sobs wrenched from Kora as she tripped among the roots on the path, stumbling and running through the forest. She’d have to hide herself away, run from all she’d known and disappear. She couldn’t face the awful feelings welling up in her heart, fear, desperation, disgust for herself and her actions, remorse for hurting her friend… and oh, gods, the shame on her mother’s face when she found out! She’d never be able to live with that!
Reaching the edge of her village, Kora stopped, just behind a tree, to catch her breath and to smooth out her hair and clothes. She knew that she had to appear to be in control of herself. Her mother would pick up on anything out of the ordinary. And as shaken as she was, Kora could not be certain that she’d be able to pull off a deception anyway. Maybe it would simply be better to feign illness, and go straight to bed? Slip away in the night, and no one would be the wiser. Kora nodded to herself, and turned to make her way to the cottage.
A voice called out, deep and hoarse, behind her, and Kora spun in alarm. Anku had followed her! No! Hand flying to her mouth, Kora backed up toward the house, flicking her eyes from side to side, looking for a way to escape the horror of this moment. How did he follow her so fast?
Kora almost tripped when she hit the door’s sill on her house with the back of her heel. Throwing her hands out, she caught herself before falling, only to have the door pulled open behind her. By her mother. And standing behind her was Elder Cate.
“Daughter! What is going on here? Elder has just been by to tell me a wild tale of a man in the woods, and..” just then, Erinas noticed Anku walking up to the house, holding his walking staff and watching her daughter intently.
“Who are you, Sir? And what mean you by following my daughter home? What is going on? Kora! Come inside and speak to me!” Erinas threw the door open wide, grabbing her daughter’s arm and pulling her toward the doorway. Elder Cate moved back, away from the light, and into the shadowy interior of the house, gazing at Anku with a mixture of fear and pity.
Kora stumbled, trying to catch the doorframe, and tumbled into the house, falling to her knees, just as Anku reached her and held out his hand for her. Dismay and… concern? Was he actually worried about her? Kora reached up and placed her free hand in his outstretched one, eyes locked on his, and slipped from her mother’s grasp.
“Anku? You’re…. not angry?” Kora pleaded, not quite believing that it could be true, but fervently hoping.
“No, Kora,” Anku spoke softly, “I am not angry with you. But, we do need to speak now, about many things.” He looked up at Erinas and Elder Cate, and with a small nod, included them in the conversation as he continued, “And I think this would be best discussed… indoors, and away from prying eyes and ears.”
Elder Cate nodded firmly in agreement and pulled Erinas back into the house so that the two younger people could enter as well. “Yes, Healer, let us discuss this inside. That would be best now.”
Erinas looked at the Elder in confusion, and back at her daughter and the young man with just a little anger. “I’m still not pleased that this young man comes from nowhere, and seeks to make a claim upon my child, Elder. Who is this man, and why should I allow him within my home?”
“Healer, all questions will be answered – inside.”
Kora’s heart was pounding as they walked into the little house. What was going on? Why had Anku followed her here? And why was he not furious with her? Eyes darting all around the room, she attempted to calm her racing pulse, with little success. Taking a deep breath, she pulled her hand from Anku’s grip, noticing that his hand was shaking slightly, as well, and she glanced up at his eyes, to see that same flicker, the tiny dark light, that had flashed in his eyes the first time she saw him in the woods.
What she didn’t see, is that everyone was looking at her, and they saw another flicker of that same dark light flash in her eyes, as she watched Anku. Elder Cate gasped slightly, and Erinas turned sharply to look at the Elder with questions in her eyes.
Once they were all seated, with Kora taking a chair as close to Anku as she could, without actually touching, Erinas turned to him and spoke firmly.
“Now. You will speak, and you will tell me, exactly who you are, and what your intentions toward my daughter are. And you will not lie to me, for I will have only truth in my home.”
Nodding, Anku placed his staff to one side of his chair, and took a deep breath.
“Madam Healer, my name is Anku, and I am the resident that lives beneath the Great Grey Oak. I first met your daughter one day as she came upon my home in the woods, and was admiring my garden. I am a solitary type, and my work does not allow for others to be present, and I denied her access to my home. I did this not out of anger, or out of meanness, but to protect her. However, your child is a persistent young woman, and I was not able to resist her hand outstretched in friendship for long. And now, I’m afraid that it is too late for either one of us to return to the way things were before we met.”
“What mean you by this?” Erinas rose sharply, her face flushing with consternation, “Kora, what have you done, and why does this stranger speak so?”
“Mother, I…” Kora’s voice quavered in fear, as she had not seen her mother this upset in many a year, not since learning of her father’s death in the big storm 5 years ago. Elder Cate rose as well, laying a hand on her mother’s arm, and guiding her to sit again.
Anku raised his hand, to interrupt, “Healer Erinas, please, this is not Kora’s fault alone, and she does not even know the whole truth of this tale, so I beg of you, to please bear with me, as I tell the rest of it.”
“Listen to him, Healer,” the Elder spoke.
“Elder Cate, you know of what he speaks, do you not? Why did you not warn me of what was happening with my own child?” Erinas’ words were heated, verging on condemnation.
“This must be his story, and I was not aware that things had moved to this point, anyway. Erinas, listen to the young ones, and then, you will know the whole of it.” The Elder then sat back in her chair, crossed her arms, and closed her mouth, refusing to speak further.
Erinas was fuming, but sat back once again in her chair to hear the rest of the tale. Eyes on Anku, her glare was almost as bright as the fire that lay in the hearth behind her, and Anku flushed a little under her gaze.
“Madam Healer, I am about to tell you something, that not many know. Obviously, the Elder does, although I know not how, or who she learned it from, but the only others that know of my work, are those that must partake of my services. For you see…. I am a Guardian at the Gate of Death, and I am one of those who see the departed across the barrier to the Other Side.”
Raising his hand slightly, to forestall Erinas’ and Kora’s obvious gasping questions, he bade them to hold until he had finished his explanation.
“The Great Grey Oak has long been a site where the veil between the worlds is very thin, the roots go so deeply into the ground, and the branches stretch right to the very heavens themselves, that it is the perfect place to ferry the souls that must cross through the Gate. I am one that guides them, that shows them where they must go once they have passed from this realm of life. I am neither of this life, nor past the veil myself, but stand between. Apart from the living, and not allowed to pass through the Gate myself, I have endeavored to dwell as solitary as possibly as I can, to protect others from this fate. For you see… once you have tasted of the fruits of Death, you then become like myself. Not living, not of the dead, simply apart, outside of time and aging.
I too, was once as you were, a young man, going about my business, when I became lost in a wood, far from here. I wandered for days, and finally came upon an old hut, seemingly abandoned, and raided what seemed to be a wild garden for something to eat. I did not realize what I was doing, until an old man called to me from within the hut. When I entered, he told me what I am about to tell you now.
Once you taste the fruits of Death, on Death’s own ground, you cease to age. You leave the world of the living, but do not gain access to the underworld unless you pass through the Gate, to the other side. There are some that choose to stay on this side, and assist those that must pass over, and I was given this choice. I chose to be a guide, a Guardian.”
Tears welling in her eyes, Erinas looked from Anku to Kora, and back again. “Does this mean that my daughter must pass through the Gates of Death, or does she have the same choice that you were given?”
Anku spoke softly, and shifted his gaze to Kora, his eyes darkening with something more than just sympathy.
“There is always a choice, for those that wish it.”
Kora stared at Anku, mouth agape and disbelieving. Words escaped her, and she simply sat, blinking slowly at the dark-haired man seated before her.
Erinas was not so stunned as all that, however. Gasping, she stood abruptly and spun to face the fireplace. Her voice, even though spoken in a tone close to a whisper, filled the room as she spoke.
“I cannot bear to lose my daughter, young man. She is all that I have in this world, since her father’s death, and I cannot see her walk beyond this ‘veil’ that you speak of. I have seen so many go before, through sickness and accident. But what is this other choice you give us ? That she would be… not living, and yet not dead. How can this be? Is it not blasphemy to deny the will of the gods? To hold back a soul that they have claimed as their own?”
Anku watched Kora’s eyes slide to her mother, fear written plainly in them, and reached over and grasped her hand gently in his own. Kora’s eyes dropped quickly to their joined hands, and he knew that she’d felt that same “spark” of heat that he’d felt when their skin had met. Like calls to like, he knew, and Kora blinked quickly and looked into Anku’s face, catching her breath slightly. Giving her hand a slight squeeze, he patted it once and laid it back on her lap, reassuring her.
“Madam Healer, those who have tasted of the fruits of Death, are chosen by the gods to act as their Guardians. They leave us with the choice to partake of the fruits, or not, of our own free will. But once the path has been chosen, it must be seen through to the finish. Either you pass through the gates, to the Beyond, or you stay on this side, and help those who have no choice. The unfortunate others who come to my gate must pass through, and it is my job to set them at ease for their passage. I endeavor to help them find the peace they need to move on, to whatever is beyond that veil. It is not always an easy task, but one I take pride in, as it is the will of the gods that I be there, and help the dead to cross over.”
“And yet, now my daughter must be either as you are, and be apart from the living… or pass through the gate of death, and leave me forever. How can I choose, Anku? Either way, she is lost to me, for all time.” Erinas turned slowly, tears trailing down her cheeks, and arms held out in entreaty to her daughter.
Kora reached out, wanting to take her mother’s hands, and yet not wanting to hurt her mother further with the painful contact that leads to goodbye. For she realized that, either way, this would be her last evening in her mother’s home.
Her mother’s home. Already, Kora was thinking of this as not her home, but as her mother’s. And knowing she’d made her choice, Kora stood.
Summer’s leaves slowly turned to Autumn’s grace. Riotous color littered the forest floor as the trees shed their leaves, and they danced delicately through the breezes that now chilled the air. And the sun’s glow turned everything to a burnished, softly-lit scene of golds, rusts, coppers, scarlets and deepest plum.
And Anku waited.
Waited for the signal that he knew so well meant another was coming to cross the veil of death. Another soul bound for eternity, he always felt the gathering emotion that preceded the arrival of his next visitor. And this one, this one was special.
Turning his face toward the path that lead to his small cottage in the forest, he felt the approaching one clearly. Fear, sadness, and… deeper within, a sense of anticipation. It was time.
From the shadows that lingered, first a face peered forward, then the rest of the person’s form came into view.
Her measured gait was slow, but sure, as she approached the home before which Anku now stood, and looking up, she lifted her hand in a small gesture of greeting. Anku returned it with his own gesture of welcome, opening the gate to his garden to allow her entrance.
“Elder Cate, I am honored by your visit, even though I know it brings the rest of your village much grief. Please, enter, and take your rest,” Anku led the gently smiling woman to a nearby bench, and helped her lower herself to it.
“Anku, I knew you would be waiting for me, and I am glad for it,” the village elder sighed softly, “Others can take my place in the village, but only I can accomplish this journey.” She looked up at the dark-haired man, and a quick flash of mischief crossed her face, just as quickly erased in the anticipation of what was to come.
“Ah, Elder, you speak truly,” Anku chuckled a little, knowing that the woman had made a small joke at her own expense, and that it was not disrespectful to acknowledge it, and even play along a little to relieve her fears. “This journey is best taken for oneself, for it is not one others can tell you about… you quite literally… have to be there yourself, to understand.”
A raspy laugh came from Elder Cate as she let go of her tension over the next part of the trip she was about to make. “Yes, I do, don’t I,” she mused, and nodded her greyed head. “And, I imagine that it will not be like unto any other journey I’ve ever taken, now, will it?”
“No, Elder, this will be more than you could ever have dreamed,” another voice, low and slightly musical came from behind Cate, causing her to turn on her seat to see. Although she knew, already, that whom she was to see.
Kora. Walking softly, almost without seeming to touch the ground, she glided forward to greet the woman she’d known her whole life. And taking the Elder’s hands into her own, lifted her easily from the bench and pulled her into a gentle embrace.
“Oh, Elder, I am sorry for the village to lose you, for I know that they love you well… but I am glad that I may be here for you, now. That I may be the one to help you through this gate.”
Elder Cate lifted her hands, taking Kora’s face into her palms, and smiled at the gifted child she’d helped Erinas raise. This beautiful woman, whom she’d watched grow, was now in full possession of her power, and it sat well with her.
“Child, and yes, I know that you are grown, but you will always be ‘Child’ to me, as I helped bring you into this world, and have watched you all your years… I am ready. For all my years, I’ve served the village and those who’ve lived and died there, and I am ready to lay my burden to rest at the foot of the Great Tree. Let us not tarry here, but be about our business, shall we?” And the Elder pulled Kora’s head down to hers to place a loving kiss on her forehead, smoothing what few lines had gathered in concern for her aged frame.
“Yes, Elder, I shall lead you home. Come along with me.”
And Anku stood at the gate, and watched his beloved lead the woman to the far end of the garden, and into the shadows beyond. As they faded in vision beyond the gate, he caught one last glimpse of the 2 of them, heads together, hand in hand, and he heard laughter, soft and lovely, rise on the air, to float up and out.