The sound of a pen scratching itself across an old pad. A hand lifted just barely off the paper to avoid smearing the fresh ink. Beads of sweat that percolated on a furrowed brow and were dried by the summer breeze. A page full of dwarven words pressed together as if in a crowd, confusing and burdensome to observe at a glance. A long shadow cast by a folding chair on the green grass. A bare steel sword as close at hand as the next blank sheet of parchment…
A man sat quite alone in a wood-and-canvas chair on the shore of a certain lake. The shore was not exceptionally grand, nor exceptionally beautiful compared with the rest of the lake. It was in fact much like nearly every other piece of shore on the lake, sparsely cast in shadow by the thinning forest behind it with an abrupt and beachless drop-off between the dark soil and the calm water. But that a man was there at all was enough to make this particular shore unique; the thick trees stretched a boundary miles deep between the water and any sort of hospitable dwelling, and the denizens therein were of a rather unhospitable nature to be sure. A sword he had, but of what benefit it would be to him when the time came to use it was another matter.
He sat quietly with his writings, seemingly unconcerned with these things. At a glance it was plain he was not a man of the field; he was thin and wiry, his skin lacking the tan of the sun, his hands slender and unscarred, his dark hair untangled and smooth. Simple clothes of tan and brown billowed out around him, clothes tailored for a man of his size but not of his weight. His brown-grey eyes looked away from the page as often as they looked at it, gazing out at the lake and shore and sky. He liked it there. It was calm there. Calm… and simple. There he did not have to fill his mind with the worries of his family or his house or his wallet. There were no wayward sounds of hammers or yapping dogs, no aeroplanes or motorcars, no intrusive neighbors or uninvited guests. Here he could remove himself from all the distractions of life, both the bad ones and the good. Here he could be at peace, alone with his thoughts and his words.
It was a risk, and he knew it well. Wander too far from civilization, and… things, began to happen. Things that belonged to a time barely forgotten, a land off the edge of the map… but only just. Things that kept children from disobeying their parents, and that kept parents from straying too far off the road in the night. The young man was no child, and no parent, but he was well aware of what it meant to stray off the path. To enter The Wild.
He knew, and yet… serenity. He was sitting on a shore untouched by man for years, perhaps generations. A place that even at its ugliest and most inhospitable created its own beauty, and in the midday sun it was surely neither of those. He had lived all his life with the subtle fear that The Wild would one day break into his world unexpectedly; he had grown to accept it, live with it. So why then, he thought, should he any more fear breaking into The Wild himself? He knew faintly the laws The Wild lived by; he was not there to hunt, or trap, or gather, or harm in any way. He was there to write.
One page gave way to another, and another, as the sun arced slowly behind the man’s back and cast his shadow upon the waters. He seemed not to be making any more progress than he would have in his own home, but progress to him was not truly measured by how many words he put on a page. He could truly think there. He could dream there. Dream about any number of worlds and peoples that did not exist, and would not until he breathed life into them with his pen.
A ripple moved across the water, as if caused by the man’s shadow itself. From the shallows a pair of crystalline eyes looked at him. Their owner sighed angrily, making the surface of the lake vibrate and splash like a fish had just jumped out of it. The noise broke the young man away from his pen and drew his attention to the shoreline, and to the eyes that stared back at him without a body. For a short while they said nothing, trapped in a strange twilight of awkwardness.
”You’re on my shore,” flowed a woman’s voice from the lake, vibrant and rolling like several voices speaking in unison.
The man was at a loss for words, except for words that anyone might say normally. His reply was subdued and apologetic, as were most of the things he said in life. “I’m… sorry, I didn’t know this was anyone’s shore.”
”Well it is,” she snapped. ”Get out.”
He slowly set his pen and paper down, choosing his words carefully. “I’m not… hurting, anything here.”
”You are in my lake, in my light, and in my WAY. Get, out.”
The peculiarity of talking with water was for the man a small issue compared with the demand for his immediate eviction. He looked around himself, perhaps expecting to find a cadre of enforcers ready to drag him away should he refuse. Finding no one, he returned his eyes to the water and pled his case.
“I’m not looking for any trouble. I’m just here to write. That’s all.”
A jet of water erupted from the lake like a hand swatting away a fly, drenching the man instantly and knocking his chair over with him in it in the process. He sputtered and gasped for breath, scrambling to his feet. As he looked back at the lake he saw the eyes in a small mound of rippling water raised off the surface, glaring at him hatefully like a woman scorned.
He picked up his pad, watching the ink bleed itself into an illegible mess, and sighed. Gathering the now-sopping-wet supplies he’d brought with him, he hoisted the flattened chair over his shoulder and looked back at the lake.
“Perhaps today is a bad day. Maybe I’ll… come back tomorrow.”
”Maybe you should think otherwise,” replied the lake.
+ + + + +
A day passed on that certain shore, and the young man did not return, much to the delight of the water’s own ego. Satisfied with her small triumph over humanity, she put it out of her mind and resumed her existence in whatever way she chose to go about it. But the day after, there he was, an hour or two before high noon, same chair, same sword, same traveling bag, new pad of paper. He did, however, sit noticeably further away from the shore than he previously had.
So confident was she in her victory that she didn’t even notice the man had returned until once again, as the sun dipped lower in the heavenly hemisphere of the sky, it cast his long shadow upon her surface. She felt it first as an itch and paid it no mind, returning to a tenuous slumber. But as the itch persisted and her patience thinned, she raised her semblance of a head once more out of the lake. And there he was.
”I told you to leave,” she emanated at him, grabbing his attention.
He looked back at her as he had before, calmly, curiously. The pride. The stubborn pride of humanity, stomping about sticking flags in the ground, battling nature time and time again and never learning their lesson to leave well enough alone.
“I didn’t come back yesterday, as you suggested.”
The insolence. “You won’t come back at ALL. This is MY shore. You WILL leave it.”
Once again he set his writing pad down and folded his hands in his lap, in some mock gesture of peace. “Mi’lady, please… I’m not asking to take your shore away from you, I’m not asking to take a drink or go swimming or anything like that. I am of peace. I just want to sit here, and write, and appreciate the view.”
Her head rippled slightly in frustration as it continued to poke out of the water like a gopher out of its hole. She had heard this before, and she had heard it from others like her. They come, cautiously, one at a time, two at a time, wanting no trouble. You concede for a while; you allow them to stay. And they grow, and they build and they push out and by the time they’ve overstayed their welcome they’re already too entrenched to be removed.
She had kept her shore the way nature had intended it for centuries, perhaps longer. It was not beautiful, but it was hers, and she refused to let it be challenged and changed by a man with honey on his lips and selfishness in his heart. Humans… Humans were too fast. Too impatient. Too eager to change the world. Change was a journey, not an event; small inches here and there over long years, and even then only if nature would allow it to happen. So he wanted to fill the shore with his insignificant writings? Wanted to “appreciate the view”? Then she would give him a view to “appreciate”, and show him just how much he “wanted” it.
Without either of the two saying another word, a figure began to rise out of the water, a figure made of the water, moving so smoothly and so fluidly that not a single ripple appeared on the surface itself. Like a bather exiting the bath stepped the form of a woman, the living water that flowed through her taking in the sunlight and scattering it outwards and inwards and purifying it in ways the most unique and brilliant diamond could never dream of doing. A river flowed out of her head and down her back like hair, like a cape, like a wedding train, pooling on the ground around her as a thin leg stretched out and touched the rich grassy earth. With each step she took away from the shore and towards the speechless man a stream of water followed her across the ground, flowing in and out of her feet and hair as if it were her very blood. As if she was nothing more than a puppet, and the shallow stream below her were the strings connecting her to her true master. But her eyes, those sparkling aquamarine eyes which alone had their own color in the miasma of translucent liquid… They were very much alive.
She stood before the young author, presenting her form before him like a silk merchant displaying his finest and most exotic wares. She could hear his heart beating even over the flowing sounds of her own body. He was nothing now. He was no longer his own. He was hers.
”Is this the view you were hoping to appreciate?” she asked him softly. Her lips moved, but her voice coursed out of every part of her.
He could do naught but stare, mouth open ever-so-slightly and hand curled near it in surprise. He felt almost that if he touched his face, if he moved in his chair, if a sunbeam shimmered through her body and into his eyes, it would all end, he would wake up, and realize that there had never been a cloistered shore in the forest to find in the first place. He forgot about his writings, forgot about this being’s scorn for him but two days ago. He did not know what he felt as he looked at this nymph from the lake. Confusion? Fear? Love? Reverence? It might have been all of them, or none, or more. What he felt he knew he would never have been able to write down, not if he had all the peaceful shores and pages of a lifetime.
An eruption. A typhoon. Before the air from his lips had even died off she set upon him like a tsunami, all her serenity and silence gone in an instant. Her form seethed and churned and foamed like a maelstrom as she dashed the man against the ground, splintering his quaint little chair into meaninglessness. There was no woman there anymore, no graceful poise and pleasant bosoms, only a shapeless cauldron of white-capped fury as the man was thrust against the ground again, and again, the force of the torrent weighing him down like a millstone on his chest, crushing the air out of him. A lanky arm thin enough to be in danger of being broken grasped across the ground for its sword, acting out of sheer will for survival. The fingers found the hilt moments before the deluge did.
”THAT WON’T WORK,” it bellowed, pulling the sword into its powerful currents and sending it singing out through the air and into the lake beyond. The man gasped for breath only to breathe in half as much in water, praying to God that this was not the end, and that if it was to forgive him for whatever disfavor it was he had caused.
The roar dulled, lessening from a waterfall to only a rapid as the aqueous wrath returned to some semblance of an anthropomorphic shape. The pitiful man managed one last hurried breath before a liquid hand closed over his face, preventing him from taking another. The head and shoulders of the woman stood out amidst the whirlpool of water, their surface rushing and spinning as the aquamarine eyes plunged into those of the man.
”You. WILL. Leave. You will take you life, and go. You will remember this day forever, or you will put it out of your mind in fear and RESPECT. You will know that we do not suffer fools, but WE do not kill them; their deaths are of their own design. This, is, OUR, world. You are not welcome in OUR world.”
With one last mighty wave she heaved the man away towards the trees, her form splashing to the ground and flowing back into the lake. He coughed and choked and coughed again for minutes on end, shivering uncontrollably as the water bit into his skin and his clothes clung to him like a straightjacket. Taking only one last look at the once again peaceful shoreline, he crawled away until he was strong enough to walk, and then walked until he was strong enough to run, bolting back through the forest in a third of the time it took him to get there.
+ + + + +
She watched for him the next day, even went so far as to sit down upon his sodden traveling pack in defiance, just waiting to catch him sneaking back and trying to reclaim his possessions. He did not return. The second day she continued to watch, though more out of curiosity than disdain, to see if he really was that foolish to test her emotions a third time. Again, he did not return. The third day she did not wait for him; she flung the pack and broken bits of chair into the forest, and put the fledgling author out of her mind. She couldn’t have cared less that he didn’t come back the fourth day, or the fifth or the sixth. She didn’t care what he did, or who he told his tale to, as long as he stayed in his world and left her to hers. She was content with what she was and where she dwelt, as was nearly every other being on the face of the Earth… except for man, and those few misguided races who sought to be more like them.
The battle, if battle it could have even been called, had left her weary, and so for a time she slept, at ease with herself. It had not been the first human she had evicted before they had taken root, and like a weed another would spring up in the future, but perhaps the story of her wrath would subdue the idealistic explorers for a generation or two, until the account faded and became merely a legend in their eyes. Humanity, like water, always traveled through cycles. Young becoming old and giving birth to the young, nations rising and falling and the ashes rising up again. Such an embarrassment that they could be so much like her and yet so different.
But as she slept… he came back. Slowly, reluctantly, and over a fortnight after he had been evicted, but he had come back. Hiding under the shelter of the trees, far away from her grasp, but not her sight, if she might have only cared to look. He did not return with a writer’s pad, or a new chair, or even a new sword. For weeks he sat in the shade of the trees and did nothing but that. Two hours one day, four hours the next, or maybe six or maybe only one. Some days he would not come at all, sometimes two or three days in a row he would not come, and sometimes he would be there every day of the week. After a time he cautiously began to venture out of the tree line, a foot closer to the water every day, or every other day perhaps. The water seemed miles away, but his body had not forgotten the example it had been given, and as his progress away from the trees began to slow, he realized where the line was between acceptance and fear.
He was still unsure as to why he was coming back at all when it was made very plain that he was not wanted there. He didn’t think that the shore was any more inspiring or unique than any number of other places he could easily find in the nearby countryside. He bore no desire for vengeance against the nymph, nor did he find himself infatuated with her. She was quite lovely—he would not deny that—but all the spirits of the earth sea and sky were as beautiful as they were deadly, and he was not at all a believer in the star-struck philosophy that danger made love more exotic. Quite the opposite, really; her previous display of “passion” had cemented his opinion of that. Whatever the reason, he tried to put it out of his head, lest he start second-guessing himself and calling his own justifications weak.
When as last he brought his paper back with him, the doubt and the questions faded away behind the strokes of the pen and the imagery of the words. He began to remember once again why he had come there in the first place, and what the pages really meant to him. They were an endless sea of potential to be sailed upon by prose and verse, every story and poem an island on it; imagination given physical form. Magic.
”The earth always boasts that it’s the strongest element, and yet no matter how firm it stands the water will always erode it into dust, inch by inch. Step, by step. We can do this because we know it takes YEARS. Not DAYS, young man. You cannot play a player; did you really think I wouldn’t notice?”
He looked up with a jolt from his last sentence and saw the lady’s aqueous torso glaring back at him from the lake, her chin resting against her folded arms on the grass. For a few seconds his heartbeat tripled, having spent so many days there in silence that he’d started to forget what it was like to have someone interrupt him mid-paragraph. Realizing just who and what it was that was talking to him, his heart calmed, but only slightly. A stone’s throw separated them, but he had no way of knowing if she could still reach him from that distance.
He averted his eyes from her gaze; even from that distance he could see the twinkle of the aquamarines boring holes into him. “To tell you the truth I, uhh… I don’t really know what to think.”
”You THOUGHT that it was a good idea to come back here,” she answered for him venomously.
“I thought that it was a good idea to write.”
”There are OTHER places to write besides MINE!”
A wave crashed violently against the shore as she shouted, spraying the grass around her but coming nowhere even close to the young man. He tapped his pen against the paper nervously, at a loss for how to respond. It was easy enough to follow his heart without a good reason in the face of doubt. Quite another thing to try and justify what he could not explain to someone else.
“What… what do you want from me?” he finally settled on asking. “I… I just want to write, that’s all. I think it’s a good place to write… peaceful. That’s all I want, miss. Peace.”
”Peace?” she lashed back at him, leaning out of the water towards him with her hands firmly planted on the ground. ”PEACE means seeking no quarrel. INTELLIGENCE means knowing when you’re CAUSING one. I have told you before, and I will tell you again: You, are, not, welcome, HERE!”
Her form began to lose its beauty as the rage began to well up within her again, incensed with the stubbornness and the utter lack of good sense in this fool of a human. He [i]was in fact too far away from the lake for her to do much of anything to him; her arm was strong, very strong, but short. And the fact that he taunted her from beyond her reach made her despise him all the more. She gave him his due; he was brave enough to come back, and clever enough to do so without a repeat of their previous engagement. But that was all she would give him.
Shaking his head for whatever reason, the man got up off the ground, dusted the dirt of his pants, and started to turn away. “Perhaps today is a bad day,” he said calmly. “Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow.”
She crossed her arms against her chest and hmmphed, a large ripple emanating out from her and splashing against the shore. Nothing she could have said would have done her true feelings justice.
He walked back into the forest, and she watched him go, altogether loathing the next day she would have to put up with him. She hoped that soon one of the residents of the forest proper would take care of him for her. They, like herself, were very territorial when it came to dealing with humans. But they were of blood, and blood was hot. It was water that ran through her veins, and water was cool. Calm some days, calamitous others, but always cool, always in control of itself.
+ + + + +
”How? How can a race so obstinate, so blind to the world around them possibly hope to conquer it and shape it to their own designs?”
The author shrugged as the nymph lay on the grass by the waters, tense and poised like a lioness waiting to pounce. She knew she couldn’t touch him, and as the days rolled by and his nervousness seemed to wane she was beginning to suspect that he knew she couldn’t, but she wanted him to see her, to remind him that she was there, defying him, rejecting him. It was not enough for his human mind to simply remember her presence and see the lake; he needed something more real, something he might see and hear.
“I’ve heard it said that the only ones who can change the world are those foolish enough to dream that they can in the first place,” he replied, looking up from his pages.
”And the rest of you dash yourself against the rocks believing you can fly,” she retorted in kind. ”It truly is a wonder you haven’t managed to wipe yourselves off the face of the earth.”
He made no reply, quite depressed himself at how self-destructive his kind was. War and political posturing and the upheaval of the many for the benefit of the few… Nor did he really wish to remind her that they had wiped themselves off the face of the earth once, long ago, when their corruption had become so great that it had reached to Heaven, and Heaven would no longer tolerate it. And that it was her kin which had purged them; the flood to end all floods.
”You will tire,” she said finally after a long silence between them. ”You will grow weary of this place. You will find another more beautiful, or more inspiring, or more benign, or more convenient, or you will find no place at all and simply cease to care. It matters not even if you steel your will and attempt in childish defiance to do what I say cannot happen. It will happen, one day. I know your race; how staunchly they will profess their beliefs and yet how easily their convictions crumble away in the face of time. I can wait.”
The man did not look up, but the motion of his pen trailed off and ceased. Though he could not see her face, she smiled smugly at him. Smug, but cool, always cool. She did not want to wait, but she could, and if she had to wait until he grew old and passed on, then she would, and when he was no more she would still be there, and the world would continue. A new cycle.
A sigh escaped from his lips. “There’s always other places,” he ruminated aloud, he response mixed with sighs and pauses as his mind worked ahead of his tongue and then pulled back. “Thousands, millions… a lifetime’s worth, I suppose, and then more… And you find a place that’s better than the one you started in and stay there instead, until you find a place better than that, and better than that, and better than that. And men will spend their whole lives looking for better places and die before they have found the perfect one… because it doesn’t exist. There’s always flaws. Always rocks where there should be grass, or grass where there should be flowers. And you spend so long looking ahead you never take the time to look at where you are.”
He raised his eyes towards hers, wishing that though she would not accept him, perhaps at least she would understand him. “This shore isn’t really that perfect, mi’lady. The edge is all clumpy and the ground is full of old roots, and when the sun hits the water from above you can see all the silt and grime and all the tangled seaweed below. And of course there’s you, who wants less than nothing to do with me and interrupts me just as often as I’d be interrupted back at home. But… I looked for some place better, and this is what I found.”
She listened to his sermon as a veteran general might listen to a philosopher discussing the mentality of war. Shaking her head back and forth over and over somberly, she told him once more, in a voice as full of conviction as his was, ”You will never be welcome here, son of man. Never.”
He shrugged acceptingly and twirled his pen in his hands. “Maybe one day I will. I can wait.”
The aspiring author sat cross-legged on the ground as he always did, his coat spread under him as a thin sort of padding. He would have preferred to wear it that day, as the cold chill of early spring had not quite left the air, but the ground was colder still. He was growing used to the nippy lake air regardless; it no longer bothered him as much as it once had.
He found his pen slowing as he became distracted with thoughts of the shore. Three seasons already… He felt like he should have given that amount of time more credence. Day followed day and page followed page until the pages blurred into stories and the days blurred into months, and before he had known it the snow had begun to fall and the shore was free of his presence until the spring thaw, and then like a stray dog who had once been fed a few scraps he ventured back again.
The time had healed no wounds between the man and the spirit, and neither of them had expected it to. Some days she would ignore him and some days she would insult him, and he would either ignore her or defend himself in turn. He had altogether given up trying to discover how close was “too close”, and not long after that he came to the realization that discovering the line between safety and danger was never the point of his relationship with her in the first place. As such some days he sat nearer to the water, and some days farther from it, but always whenever she would attack him or excoriate him, he would sit closer to the trees the next day.
A sodden clump bounced against the man’s shoulder, thrown from the direction of the lake. He looked at the clump first, now bleeding water into his coat; a soggy, crumpled piece of paper. He then looked up at the inevitable pitcher, and was surprised at how close she was to him that day; fifteen paces at most. That far from the lake she could only muster a child-sized version of her normal avatar, and even though she stood proudly against the man with her semblance of a hand planted against her semblance of a hip, she stood not more than three feet tall.
”It’s drivel,” she criticized enigmatically.
He looked at the crumpled page again and carefully peeled it open. Though the letters was blotted the text was legible, and before he had even finished the first stanza he recognized the poem as one of his own.
He made a rather confused face, not at all sure what to make of this. “I… didn’t, give this to you,” he replied.
”You left it on the ground; that makes it mine. It’s bad enough I have to look at your pretentious face three times a week without having to deal with the trash you leave behind.” She pointed definitely to the paper in his hands. ”Is this really the sort of tripe you’ve been passing your time with?”
“You’ve… read it?” he asked inquisitively.
She humphed and tossed her waterfall of hair behind her. “What shallow verse there WAS to read.”
“I, uhh… I didn’t know you could read.”
She snapped a thin tendril of water at his face, offended. ”You also don’t know how to write. There’s no pulse, no FLOW. I felt like I was reading the diary of a mental patient.”
He looked down at the paper again, wiping the water out of his eyes. “Well, I just, you know… write from the heart, I guess, put down whatever comes to mind. I know this one isn’t the best I suppose, but, I mean… well, isn’t it all about what it means to the reader individually?”
Another snap to the face. “DEPTH, young fool. DEPTH. Words cannot mean anything profound to others if they don’t even mean something profound by themselves. There is an ocean between caring about writing and caring about WHAT you write, and if you can’t even tell the difference then get, off, my, SHORE!”
He looked back and forth between the lady and his poem, water dripping off his hair and running down his cheeks. He had nothing to say, nothing he knew how to say. Drivel…? He’d began to think that his writing had improved since coming to the secluded little shore; he’d started to feel better about it, felt like it was really meshing better since his could write longer without being interrupted. But drivel?
“I, uhh… Well, I just thought, think… to… To, today is a, bad day,” he finally stammered as he hastily got up and put his coat on. “I’ll come back, umm… maybe, maybe I’ll come back tomorrow…”
The nymph rolled her eyes and looked down at him as best she could for being half his size. ”If THIS is what you’ve been interrupting my life for, you had best NOT. For a man as stubborn as you, I expected better.”
+ + + + +
It was some months before he worked up the resolve to go back. The lady’s criticism of his work had wounded him far more than her personal attacks on him had, and for the first time since she’d nearly suffocated him all those months ago, he was actually afraid to return. Afraid of garnering more of her scorn. Her words had eaten into him like acid; ever since he had begun to second-guess himself with every page he wrote, constantly mulling over whether she would just say anything to get him to leave, or whether what was on the desk in front of him really was drivel. It was true that she hadn’t really said much, and that what she had said was based on very little, but it didn’t matter; the seed had been planted. His imagination began to fabricate scenes where the nymph would violently grab pages out of his hands mid-sentence and scan them before shoving them into his face and telling him it was even worse than the last one, and no matter what he wrote she would hang over him like a raincloud, drowning him in a sea of belittlements as he swam in vain against the currents of her disapproval.
His face was slick with sweat from the forest’s stuffy summer air, and as he lurked behind the familiar tree line, the cool breeze from the lake taunted him. It had been so long since he’d been there he hardly knew what to expect anymore. A weight lifted from his nervous heart when he saw that the nymph’s shimmering avatar was nowhere to be found; he didn’t think he could have bared to talk to her outright after so long. Like a child cautiously approaching a sleeping dog he inched himself forward, clutching a leather-wrapped package and fearing that he would hear her voice with every step.
When he had ventured as far as he dared, far enough where he knew was within her reach but still not to the water itself, he stopped and set the package on the ground at his feet. Again he half-expected a whip to extend out of the water and flick the package and himself away, but there were only the sounds of the forest. Taking a deep breath, he spoke to the lake, whether the girl could hear him or not.
“This is the best I’ve got,” he announced. “I’ve always been in love with the idea, just… never really felt like I had a good reason to write it until now. It’s not finished yet and I feel like there’s some glaring flaw I can’t see in it, but…” He sighed and shrugged, his arms flopping against his sides. “I’m real proud of this one. I, uhh, I put that ‘flow’ in like you said too. It’d, uhmm… it’d be nice if you read it. Take your time; I mean, I can, I can wait, I guess… Sorry if I disturbed you.”
Still receiving no response from the water, he awkwardly backed away and headed into the forest, his time on the shore taking up no more than five minutes despite the trip there taking tenfold that long. But it was worth it to him, to get that story to her, to let her see something of his he wanted her to see rather than some random snippet.
She hated him, and she hated his presence and she hated everything his presence stood for. But she had read it. Despite it all, she had still read that paper. And to him, that meant there was hope, hope that the two of them might really be able to co-exist on that shore, that there was some part of her that did not revile him, in some way. It was the only thing that had kept him going in the months he had stayed away, in the months he had questioned his place in the world and told himself he would never go back, that it was too much trouble for too little peace. She had read it.
He only hoped she would read this one too.
+ + + + +
She tapped her fingers on the grass, making little puddles in the dirt underneath every time she did. The cloudy night covered the moonlight yet again, and her blue-green eyes flew across the page, racing the fading rays to reach the end of the paragraph before she could no longer see. Upon reaching the terminal period, her eyes rolled upwards for another countless time.
”As if there was really any further doubt that she’s not a zombie,” she mused to herself. ”How could any normally-functioning human being NOT have been able to work it out by now? He really expects me to believe these characters wouldn’t notice she’s dead? Honestly now, she hasn’t taken off the gloves or scarf since you met her. I don’t care if she can carry on a normal conversation, you would NOTICE this! Even when I’m alone I’m surrounded by idiots…”
She scoffed and insulted the paper in front of her until the light returned, and then she dragged the finished page off to one side before tugging at the corner of the next in the pile, keeping the ink for the most part unharmed. Their creator was not available, so she had to direct her dissatisfaction somewhere while she waited for him to come back, whenever that might be. Days, weeks… maybe she wouldn’t even talk to him the first day back. Make him stew in uncertainty for a while; it’d do him some good. He’d certainly looked pretty meek when he’d dropped the manuscript off. Maybe she was finally having an effect on him.
She shook her head bemusedly as she dove back into the tepid story of the undead hiding in plain sight. That man certain was an odd sort of fellow, going to all these lengths just to find himself a place cut off from civilization where he could find his muse. Any person with normal luck would have been eaten alive by the forest already, but she was almost glad he hadn’t been; it would give her great satisfaction to chase him away herself after all this trouble. And this story was the best he had to offer? She chuckled, her laughter echoing through her body until it sounded like a babbling brook. It was predictable, sophomoric, the prose was as purple as a grape, and the characters had been seen in a hundred different settings before.
But… it wasn’t drivel.
+ + + + +
”She wouldn’t say that.”
He looked up behind his shoulder as the nymph looked down over it, a few stray steams of hair occasionally dripping down onto his free hand.
“What? No, yes she would. It makes sense in context.”
”I AM reading it in context. It makes her sound like some sort of prostitute.”
“No, see that’s the point, she’s doing it on purpose because she knows they know she wouldn’t talk like that,” he explained, turning his body a little to face her more properly. “But it’s not about sarcasm; she’s acting slutty so he won’t hit on her later. She’s independent like that.”
”Which is precisely why she WOULDN’T say that,” she retorted, rather enjoying her ability to stand over the young man for the day. ”It’s demeaning to females; she wouldn’t pick low-hanging fruit like that even as a means to an end. There’s a line for women like us. We don’t cross it.”
“All right, first, I honestly think that given the situation she would act like that. Remember that undead-in-plain-sight story I wrote like, ohh… what was it now, three years ago?”
”It was four.”
“Huh, really. Time flies. But anyways, the scene where Tabby and the rest of them are in the tea shop and he figures out she’s actually a zombie? Like that only the other way around. And secondly, women like us?” He poked her thigh with the back of his pen, watching the surface of her leg ripple like a pebble dropped in a lake. “You’re made of water.”
She frowned at him for a second or two, allowing him to prod her a few more times before sucking the pen into her body and flicking it back at his head out her hand. “You just crossed that line. Out.”
“For that?” he complained, rubbing his smarting temple.
She grabbed him by the wrist, quickly enveloping his entire arm like a straightjacket, and half-led-half dragged him away from the shore as he protested all the while. When she grew too weak to drag him any farther she gave him a forceful shove, nearly sending him to the ground. ”Today is not a good day,” she answered harshly, watching him regain his balance and fling some of the water off his arm.
He looked around for the rest of the paper he’d brought with him that day, but seeing that he’d left it back by the shore he gave up thinking about retrieval. He and the nymph might have become on more casual speaking terms after nearly five years, but it still didn’t really change the way she treated him, which all things considered was not very good.
“I’m not letting this one go; we’re going to finish this. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
”No you won’t.”
“Ahh damn, honestly? Two days then.”
“Four?! Come on, give me three.”
He glared at her, holding his hands up and trying to act dumbfounded when they both knew he was anything but. “It’s like… Why do I even bother to come here anymore?”
Her expression was unflappable. “Because you think you’re in love me.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah…” He waved her off unconcernedly as he rolled up his daily writing progress and stuffed it into his coat pocket. “You know, you keep saying that and if you’re not careful one day it’s actually gonna come true.”
She shrugged him off as she spun around and glided back towards the lake, hair fanning out behind her like a cloak. ”One day is a VERY long time away, little wordsmith. And I don’t think you could bear to wait that long.”
“Well, that’s progress, at least… I remember when you knew I couldn’t wait that long.”
She snapped her head back around, but he had already turned away into the forest. Her eyes narrowed into slits as she peered skeptically at his back, wishing she could reach over and spin him around so he could say that to her face. Such nerve that man had, still daring to test her patience like that after all these years. Talking to her like they were old friends and he no longer had to worry about the consequences of his words… He was more patient than most, she would give him that, but she knew he was just like all the rest at heart. He was getting complacent, he was forgetting that she allowed him to stay, and if she didn’t keep ejecting him whenever he put a toe out of line then it would only be a matter of time before she wouldn’t be able to anymore.
+ + + + +
A brisk autumn breeze blustered through the forest, kicking up red-brown leaves and whistling at the tails of the man’s topcoat. He kept the thick fabric wrapped tightly to his chest, clutching his writing material inside of it. He could tell it was going to a bad day for writing with this weather; most likely he’d spend more time rubbing his hands together than putting pen to paper. But that didn’t necessarily mean it was going to be a bad day.
The shore hadn’t changed much over the weekend; a few more leaves fluttering on the ground and floating on the water perhaps. He shifted his grip on the coat to pick up a stumpy old log resting next to a tree, cradling it against his side as he walked up near the water and set it down. Spinning it around to find a dry patch, he dusted it off slightly and sat down.
“Good morning, Flo,” he said quietly, looking at the water. He waited for a response of some sort, but after receiving none he shrugged, rested a pile of paper against his lap, and picked up where he had left off two days before. As expected, his progress was slow, and despite his fingerless knit gloves he would often stop to rub some feeling back into them.
”You really need to stop calling me that,” came the water’s belated reply more than ten minutes later, unaccompanied by any girlish figure or piercing aquamarine eyes.
He didn’t set his pen down, but he did stop writing and look back at the lake, smiling slightly. “You know I’d much rather call you by your real name if you’d just tell me, but of course you’ll have none of that, will you?”
The water splashed up at his boots in reply, but left his paper unharmed. Nodding his head at the shore, he returned to his paper for another spell.
“Got another letter in the mail this morning,” he mentioned offhand, still focused on his writing. “That makes four this week already.”
“Still wooing the young girlies with your insipid poetry, are you?” she replied like a gossip. ”Aren’t you getting a little old for that by now?”
“To be honest I don’t really think they care. It’s inspiring in a way; nice to see people who aren’t afraid to chase a dream. Slightly less inspiring when some of ‘em are half my age, I suppose. But no, this wasn’t one of those; just a fellow writer asking for advice. Probably just looking for a kick-start to his story, something like that.”
The surface of the lake ripped momentarily, as if she had thought of getting out of the water and reconsidered. ”If you’d shave that beard properly you might actually look young enough for the ladies to come calling in person. I can only imagine what sort of enigmatic wild-man aura you exude during those lectures of yours.”
He shrugged, taking another break to warm his hands with his breath. “I’m just glad I got past the point where they’re willing to pay less attention to all that. As long as the words keep coming, I don’t think they much care where they’re coming from.”
”And I’m just glad they haven’t found out they’re coming from HERE,” she flipped back.
He paused for a moment, half-wishing she’d poke her head up so he could talk to her properly. But he’d long-since gotten used to carrying on conversations in this fashion as well; she had never been much of an exhibitionist if she could help it, though he’d had to work that one out himself.
“You know,” he answered, “That statement could be a lot less metaphorical if you’d actually—“
He stood up and backed away just in time to save the majority of his clothes from a waterlogged fate as she heaved a small wave up onto the shore at him.
”NEVER,” she boomed back at him defiantly. ”I don’t swim in your bathtub…”
“…and I don’t swim in your lake,” he answered, finishing a common witticism both of them had come to accept as a catch-all final line in any conversation. He knew better than to suggest she actually take up the pen herself, but in a way he almost felt like he was cheating her out of what she was due. She never ceased to critique his work, whether it was reading over his shoulder or thumbing through pages he’d leave for her overnight. Mostly negative, sometimes a backhanded sort of positive, but always appreciated, and rarely had he ever looked back on her comments and believed them to be out-and-out wrong. He just wished somehow she could get the acknowledgment she deserved… All his success and regional acclaim as a writer and poet he attributed to her and her shore, but the day he admitted it openly would be the day he betrayed the tenuous trust he had been awarded from her inch by inch, step by step. Over years, not days.
Morning turned to midday and to afternoon in relative silence, though he very much doubted it was because she was being sullen. Weeks might pass without a word from her, and sometimes weeks would pass without a word from him as well. He had long-since given up trying to earn her respect with words either written or spoken, and she had long-since given up trying to make him leave; once they’d both come to terms with the fact, the chatter between them had for the most part died down.
He slipped he pen inside his coat pocket, done with his prose for the day, though he didn’t immediately get up. He enjoyed just sitting there some days, staring out into the lake, gazing at all its perfections and imperfections. A cabin or two on the far shore had sprung up in recent years, marring the aura of solitude somewhat, but he had accepted it, just as he had accepted the grey hairs springing up in his beard. It was life; it was time. It passed, and the world passed with it.
He sighed, looking at the little piece of shore nearest him he would have liked to call his home away from home. He never could bring himself to call it that; she wouldn’t have liked it. It had always been hers, and his time there was only ever a loan. A loan she hardly ever collected on anymore, true, but… still a loan.
“I think I might finally try to write that saga,” he mused to her, putting his hands on his knees. “I think I might finally be ready for it now.”
”Now?” That got her to stick her torso out of the water and look back at him eye-to-eye, folding her arms against the shore as if she was just a swimmer lounging in a public pool. ”Bit late for that now, don’t you think? What do have, ten years left?”
“Twenty-five, at least, Flo; don’t rub it in. And I’m serious. I know it’s a bit of a late start, but… yes, I think I really still want to do it. Not even to be remembered for it anymore, really… I just don’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t try.”
She stared at him intensely, perhaps trying to gauge the sincerity and conviction in his heart. As she remained motionless her hair slowly trickled into her face, and she washed it away with a casual sweep of her hand. With a candid remark that didn’t really divulge her approval or her condemnation of the project, she told him, ”You best not go writing me into it; I know you won’t do me justice.”
He smiled and shook his head bemusedly. “Well with an attitude like that you’ll only be getting yourself into half of the fourth book. Plus it’s not like you can be in it without a name, in any case.”
As he rolled his papers into one of his deeper pockets and picked up the log-chair, a splash of water at his shoulder made him turn around and look back at the nymph and her ever-amorphous expression.
He looked back at her respectfully and nodded without saying a word, well aware that not just anybody would have been privy to such knowledge. If it had taken him thirty ego-deflating and waterlogged years just to learn her name, he could only imagine what the next thirty might be like.
Above the treetops of a certain forest skimmed a certain airy sky-blue sprite, brushing her hands against the tips of the leaves at breakneck speeds and sending skittish birds bursting out of the branches in her wake. She was of the sort that barely remembered yesterday and wouldn’t even think about tomorrow until tomorrow came. A girl that was perpetually having the best day of her life every second of it, and couldn’t have cared less how much of it was due to cheerfulness and how much of it was due to obliviousness.
As she shot out of the trees and across the adjoining lake, her eyes wistfully wandered down below her, looking for something interesting to play with. It was the time of day when most of the countryside was still asleep, but of course nature never really went to sleep, so there was always someone to play with if she just kept looking.
A stray pink-golden ray of the rising sun reflected itself off of something below and caught the fairy’s eye, instantly diverting her path like a moth to a flame. As she neared the ground the reflecting-something turned into a watery shimmering lady-something, stretched out on the grass with her back against a flat rock. Water nymphs were not an uncommon sight for her, though she only vaguely recalled the sullen dispositions of those who dwelt in secluded lakes such as this one. With a twirl and a somersault she alighted upon the ground gracefully and skipped up to the nymph’s side.
“Hey! Hey! Who are you? Let’s play~!”
The nymph looked up at the fey and then looked back down at something on the ground beside her, apparently wholly unenthused with the idea of playing. “This is my shore, and you’re disturbing me. Leave.”
She pouted for a fraction of a second before fluttering over to the nymph’s other side, trying to catch her gaze again. “Hey! C’mon, get up! What’re ya doing? Whach’ya got there, can I see it?”
The cheery girl bent down to look at the whatever-it-was the calmer woman was keeping such a secret. A pile of papers with black squiggles on them? How boring! They just sat there and didn’t look like anything fun at all!
“Aww, that’s no fun, what is that? Come over here, come into the water, I bet you love the water!” Childishly the fairy tried to grab the nymph’s hand and drag her into the lake, but her grasp merely passed right through no matter how many times she tried, and try many times she did, making a game of it herself.
”I am TRYING to write,” she told the sprite, deftly shielding the parchment from the wayward splashes. ”This is a good place to write; it is less good with you here.”
The fairy took a look at the papers again. “Write? What’s write, it looks lame!”
A deep ripple passed through the water spirit’s body as she slowly sighed, not wanting in the least to deal with some fool child that day but knowing how impossibly incorrigible they could be if ignored. Resigning herself to her fate for the next several minutes, she turned her sparkling aquamarine eyes towards the little girl.
”Writing is stories; stories about many things. Humans use them to remember what they have forgotten, or imagine places they cannot go.”
It was obvious that the fairy couldn’t have cared much less about even a simple explanation like that. “What, imagining? Humans are lame, they should just go where they wanna go, like me! What’s this big rock here anyways?” she added, crawling all over the slab of stone and kicking it as if she expected it to wake up.
The action was immediately met by a crashing wave of an arm sweeping the fairy off her feet and plunging her into the water away from the stone. The nymph flowed off the grass and into the sprite’s face nigh instantaneously, soft green eyes surging with freezing dark rage as she grabbed her hair, keeping her head just above the surface.
”You do NOT touch that stone. That stone is NOT for touching. Do you understand?!”
For the few seconds necessary to achieve her freedom, the fairy nodded meekly, fearful tears mixing with the water from the nymph’s cold grip streaming down her face. She let her go and the little sprite exploded out of the water and onto dry land, buzzing her gossamer wings dry and wringing out her hair. The ornery nymph reformed herself back on the shore, watching over the standing slab like a bear over her cub, her eyes following the fairy closely as it cautiously approached the stone again.
“So what is it?” she asked curiously, unable to read the words carved upon it.
”It is… a friend,” she replied enigmatically.
The waif stared at the stone intensely for a full minute, so immobile she might as well have been made of stone herself.
“Your friend don’t talk much, do she?”
”My friend was a HE, little girl.”
“He? He was? He what… oooooohhhh, I getchya, it’s-a one-a thoooose rocks.” She stepped back in innocent respect, inclining her head in honor for the dead. The nymph calmed herself down slightly, impressed with the reverence of such a simple creature.
“So, who was he?” she asked, sitting down cross-legged next to her friend for the day.
The woman did not answer immediately, perhaps not truly knowing the answer herself. After composing her thoughts somewhat she simply replied. ”He was a very odd man. A writer who believed in writing and refused to stop believing in it. Such a pointless thing, such a silly little thing… But he cared about it in a way I did not believe a human could care about something.”
She stuck her tongue out, completely lost. “Bluuaaah, what’s that even mean? Is that s’possed to be love? I bet you loved him or something, did you love him or something?”
She glared icicles at her companion for the insinuation. ”I RESPECTED him, because he respected me. And I will CONTINUE to respect him. He has earned that much.”
“Helllooooo, that’s not what I asked, I didn’t ask that! Did, you, loooooove, him?”
She wanted to slap the fairy for her insolence as she had slapped countless others over the course of her lifetime, but she stayed her hand. It was an honest question, and honestly, a question she would never have brought herself to ask out loud, or even in her head.
Their acquaintanceship was odder than he had even been in her eyes, an acquaintanceship she had never had until that point in her life, so how could she know what she was supposed to call it? He had done so much for doing so very little; she had seen him grow up, mature, and grow old right in front of her. She had read every piece of tripe he had thrown at her, and she had thrown it all back at him. He had stood against every tide, every current, every downpour she had thought to push at him, and though he had left, he had always came back. Fifty-eight years worth of conversations… Fifty-eight years worth of stories spanning every corner of the globe, and he had written them all right there, right on her shore, her shore. This was his whole life, and he had shared it all with her. He had died in front of her; she had hollowed out his grave and carved his headstone, inch by inch, step by step. Fifty-eight years… He had never said it, and she had never said it to him. But looking back on it, she thought that maybe he did, maybe he knew…
No. She knew he knew.
“…Y-yes,” she finally replied, running her hand across the gravestone. “I loved him.”
>five years ago
Go ahead and stop me now if this is out of line but, how old are you exactly? I've guesstimated somewhere along the lines of mid-twenties but reading this excerpt from when you were supposedly "bad" at writing makes me question either your acumen with writing or your age.
Oh, no, you misunderstand me. Only the name "Æquode" was from five years ago. This short itself was still written in February 2012. Trust me, if I posted the tripe I wrote when I was 19, it would show and show hard. I can't even bring myself to reread that stuff. There is plenty of room to question my younger self's acumen.
But to sate your curiosity, I'm currently 24 years old, and approaching 25 faster than I'd prefer.