Must she squeeze so hard? Oh… she’s crying. It’s alright, little one, squeeze Teddy tight.
Must she squeeze so hard? Oh… she’s crying. It’s alright, little one, squeeze Teddy tight.
Once my mom told me
Love is a trap,
It's like a drug
More addictive than Crack
So I thought
Make love not war,
But I was young
True love was far
But I forgot
Love does not come when you desire,
He hits you coming from nowhere
It feels like you're on fire
Maybe you turn into blind by love
That happens a lot,
And suddenly you have to leave
But your heart does not
Maybe that's why she said it
She raised me alone,
She felt like there was no thing
Such as romantic love
She loved me
And for me it was enough,
I love her too
But for me this topic is rough
I fall in love everyday,
Maybe that's why she said,
Never understood the phrase
I just don't feel like that.
Love isn't bad
My mom said,
It's so strong
It becomes a trap.
The infant’s cries echoed off the brick walls of the dank, grimy alley as it lay in the arms of its dead mother. It was a girl. She had been born only minutes ago and the mother, drug addled and weak, was left with just enough life to look upon her daughter’s face for a mere second. Then death came. Terrified and hungry, the child continued to scream and lucky for it, those cries did not go unheard. Floating in the space between dimensions, a disembodied spirit was drawn towards the sound. When it saw the child, it was filled with sadness and pity. The baby girl was tiny and it was obvious it would not last long without intervention. I must help this poor creature. Silently, the spirit entered the child’s world and ever so gently approached her. Abruptly, the baby stopped crying and stared up in wonder. “There there, my sweet. Everything will be alright. I am here to help you.” With those reassuring words, the spirit slowly poured itself into the small body, intending to give it strength until help arrived. But it was too late. With a cry of dismay, the spirit felt the child’s life drain away as if it were its own, until it was the only consciousness left. Lost in the pain and confusion of death, the spirit’s awareness began to fade.
“Kaido, my love. I am sorry. Please find me.”
After that final sentient thought, it forgot.
Chapter One – Finding Home
The forest called to me. It sang to me in shades of green, the scent of pine and damp earth. Here was where I felt most at home, where I felt safe and completely at peace. Now, that is. It hadn’t always been this way; not until I had come here to Franklin, a small town situated in the Nantahala Forest of North Carolina. I breathed deep, inhaling the sweet perfume and watched as a squirrel quickly scampered up a tree. Birds of all kinds whistled and chirped happily from above. I smiled slightly and whistled back. Butterflies danced in fluttering synchronicity and I watched them too, fascinated, as one landed gently upon my palm. The sun played hide and seek among the trees, finding the gaps in which to cast down its warming rays; unseasonably warm rays considering it was supposed to be Fall. There had been rain this morning and the water drops sparkled as the sun hit them, giving a magical display though, it had done nothing to ease the heat. If anything, it had made it hotter as the humidity levels climbed. Nevertheless, the whole forest felt magical, like it was on the verge of revealing this great and mysterious secret. The atmosphere almost seemed to quiver with anticipation, waiting for me to make a grand discovery. These solitary trips to the forest were my escape. They were essential to my wellbeing. It was deep amongst nature where I truly felt I could be myself, or at least the me that I had recently become.
Today’s trek felt no different to any other. I had lived in Franklin for half a year now and had come to know the Nantahala Forest like a true local. It was a kindred spirit that had called out to me and I had answered the call. Like a moth to the flame I had been drawn here, my restless heart refusing to settle until the moment I had arrived. After only a month or so, I could walk through this forest blindfolded and not trip over a single root or stone. However, unbeknown to me, this particular little adventure was going to change my life. In essence, I guess I could say this was when I was born for the second time. Up until now, I had merely existed, drifting through life without a purpose, going through the motions, never feeling complete.
I meandered slowly through the trees, taking my time to enjoy the pleasant company and shade that the forest provided when suddenly, I was overcome with the sense of being watched. I stopped walking and stood completely still, hardly even daring to breathe. I wasn’t afraid. There was no sense of foreboding or danger and I could feel no threatening presence. If anything, I was curious. Slowly, I turned on the spot, peering intently into the forest on all sides. A flicker of movement drew my eye and I quickly turned to face that direction but I was too slow. I heard the rustling as whatever had been there quickly moved on. I considered chasing it, then immediately dismissed the idea. Whatever it was would already be long gone. Instead, I walked over to where I thought it had been hiding and studied the ground. If I couldn’t chase it, maybe I could track it. I had to know what it had been. I knew this forest. I knew every creature, every tree, every stream, every rock but this was something else, something I didn’t know; something enigmatic and enchanting. It felt as though I was standing on a ledge and the forest was waiting for me to jump into the unknown oblivion. I studied the ground carefully. To my surprise, and dismay, I could see no signs of disturbance. Had I imagined it all? My heart was pounding and my body coursed with adrenalin. No. Something had been here and it had been watching me. Maybe I was looking in the wrong place. Absently, I glanced above me and my eyes caught something perched on the branch just above my head. It was a feather, a deep, rich red coloured feather. I reached up to snatch it from the trees grasp but the cheeky wind beat me to it. The feather danced as the wind carried it away. Follow me, it seemed to say as it twirled and twisted, dipped and soared on the petulant breeze. Where? I asked silently. Where will you take me? For a split second, the feather hung motionless. Was it waiting for me? And then I blinked. When I opened my eyes, the feather was gone and for reasons I couldn’t explain, a tear slipped silently down my cheek.
The rain returned with the night sky and I sat curled up in my favourite armchair. A book rested on my lap, open though it had been several hours since I had turned a page. The ceiling fan whirred quietly, the only other noise aside from the rain. Absently, I took a sip of tea from the mug I held between my hands and stared out the window. My head was full of memories; memories from a life that I felt I’d lived a thousand years old yet, in reality, was only a few. I could see myself in these memories, though it was a different version of me; a happier version. I saw myself smiling and laughing, having fun like any normal person in the prime of their life. That was where I had been; in the prime of my life. I was a free spirited twenty-three-year-old, ignorant to the rigors and hardships of life. I’d lived in Miami, Florida, and my life had consisted of endless days at the beach, my boyfriend Ethan and messy weekends binge drinking and dancing. By day, I had worked as a barista in an upbeat little café on the beach, which was funding my studies as a dance student at the University of Miami. Dance had been my passion from the moment I had come into this world, and I had big plans. I was going to dance my way into the Hollywood Hall of Fame and mingle with the rich and famous. Everyone told me I could do it and I believed them but, more importantly, I believed in myself. I wasn’t conceited. I didn’t come into this life thinking that everything would be handed to me on a silver platter or fed to me from a silver spoon. I expected to work hard to get where I wanted to be and work hard is what I had done. Then, one day, everything changed. I changed, to be more accurate. It happened gradually, with a heightening of my senses and emotions. I began to feel everything on a much deeper level than I had ever experienced before. At first it had felt amazing, like I was on a permanent high induced by the sweetest drug on the market. Everything felt new, shiny and exciting. Even sadness was marred with traces of wonder and bliss. I could feel so intensely despondent that somehow, it took on a feeling of ecstasy and profound euphoria. On top of that, those feelings of sadness, grief and the like, made the opposite emotions much more pungent in a delightfully vivid way. The ground beneath my feet felt softer and more luxurious, the air smelled sweeter and my eyes saw the world in a psychedelic mass of colour. That didn’t last long as, suddenly, I began to feel and sense everyone around me. Everything they felt, I felt too. It even happened with animals, which was a rather bizarre experience. I could see into them – humans and animals alike – as though they were transparent and after a short while, instead of feeling a buzz, it became a burden, a weight that I could barely carry. I didn’t know what was happening. How could one person feel so much? How could a person feel what another person felt as if it were their own? Then, I began to feel sick. One day, my head started spinning and I collapsed in the middle a dance routine, landing awkwardly and injuring my knee to such an extent that it needed surgery. The doctors had told me at the time that they weren’t sure if I would ever dance again. That had been an enormous blow. From there, it just continued in a downward spiral of various debilitating symptoms. I was tired all the time, no matter how much sleep I got. My body ached constantly and no number of painkillers, chiropractors, physios or massage therapy would help. Food disgusted me. Just the thought of eating made me want to vomit and as a result, the weight fell off me and I became dreadfully thin. Moreover, I was constantly cold. Even if I was wearing warm clothes and in bed under several blankets, I still felt cold. That one confused me – and the doctors – the most. More so when my body temperature read lower than normal and my lips took on a blueish tinge.
Eventually, with great despair and anguish, I had to give up my dance studies. For the next four years, my life became a series of doctor visits and medical examinations until I had a file as thick as a dictionary yet no diagnosis. They took so much blood from me I wondered how there was still any left. I lost interest in all the things I had once loved and fell into a deep depression and things became very bleak. More and more I sought solitude, turning down invitations from friends or telling them I wouldn’t be home if they wanted to visit. Next came the dreams. I would dream of forests and of one specific forest; the Nantahala. But it wasn’t an ordinary dream. I had heard of lucid dreaming before but had never experienced it until these dreams began. It was incredible! The dreams were so realistic and so life-like that I felt I was physically there. The gentle breeze and warmth of the sun brushed my skin. Warmth! I had forgotten what being warm felt like. I had never physically been to the Nantahala Forest. I should not have known that there was a waterfall in that precise location or that there were cliffs over that way to the north. The rich, earthy scent that filled my nostrils should not have raised feelings of nostalgia and familiarity, as though I had experienced it before. I became obsessed with these dreams. They promised answers and an uninterrupted, all-consuming peace such as I had never known. I couldn’t get enough. Any chance I could get, I slept, taking a pill – or two – if I needed it.
My parents were at their wits end and didn’t know what to do with me anymore. They soon became convinced that it must be all in my head and began to push me into therapy sessions, berating me to get over it and get on with life. Well, they were not actually my real parents. I had been adopted when I was a baby. Apparently, I had been found in the arms of a dead woman – my birth mother. She had been a heroin addict and probably wasn’t even aware she was pregnant until she gave birth. Extremely malnourished and riddled with illness, giving birth had been the last straw and her body gave out. There was no way to know who my biological father was. For all anyone knew, he could be some horrible man who had raped the senseless woman. So, I’d been found by random strangers who reported it to the police and was then unloaded to Child Protective Services where I stayed until Vince and Gina found me. I get the feeling now that they wish they had chosen someone different. In most regards, they were nice people and admittedly, life with them had been pretty good until I became sick. I suppose their patience could only extend so far which probably made it a good thing they had never adopted a second child. Our relationship became tense. Both Vince and Gina chastised me on throwing my life away to foolishness, nagging me to give up this ruse, admit I was mentally unstable and stop looking for attention. We had numerous arguments that would leave me in tears on the floor of my bedroom and unable to get up. I wasn’t crazy. Wouldn’t I know it if I was? Or maybe not. Maybe not knowing you were crazy is what made you crazy. True, my mind did not function how it once had but, I was still rational and logical. In any case, I did not appreciate being told I was making it all up because I was not, and I would never admit to such a thing.
One by one, my friends dropped away, fed up with the fact that I never went out anymore. Ethan stuck with me the longest however, he too eventually lost patience. I wasn’t exactly thrilling company. Life became unbearable. I was lonely, depressed, sick and sick of being sick. Seeing as I had nowhere else to go, I was forced to put up with the pain of staying at my parent’s house until, one night, I finally realized what the dreams were trying to tell me. I was meant to go to the Nantahala Forest. Somehow, I knew that if I went there, I would feel better. I had still been working at the café a few times a week and living at home while studying had allowed me to save a little bit of money. I just hoped it was enough to get me started; to get me to Franklin then once I felt better, I could get a job. There was even a college nearby where I could pick up my dance Degree again if I wanted to. I doubted it would ever come to that, but it was nice to know the option was available.
“You want to go where?” My mother had exclaimed when I told my parents. My father looked at me blankly, as if I had told him I wanted to move to Antarctica.
“I want to move to Franklin.” I poured all the confidence I had left into this conversation. I wanted them to think I was moving on, getting on with life; which is exactly what they wanted. “It will be a fresh start for me,” I added with a smile that I hoped appeared genuine.
My parents looked each other. I couldn’t really tell what they were thinking. It seemed they didn’t know either.
“I’ve already done my research,” I told them. “There are small houses for rent and there is a college where I can continue my studies if it comes to that. I spoke with Miami Uni and it isn’t a difficult process to transfer me and I’ve already searched for jobs as well.”
“I….” Vince stammered. “I don’t know what to think. This is all so sudden.”
“You both want me to get on with life, right?”
“Well, yes…” Gina began.
“This is the best way for me to do that. It will be a good experience to be out on my own for a while, learn how the world works, how to take care of myself.” I didn’t know why they were hesitating. They were fed up with me anyway. I thought this would have made them happy.
“It’s a big decision to make, Eirwin, and not one to be taken lightly,” admonished my father. It was meant to sound like parental advice only, it came out slightly more patronizing.
“I know. That’s why I have thought it over for a couple of weeks and made sure I’ve got everything figured out beforehand.” Since they seemed to need reminding, I added, “I’m not exactly a kid anymore.”
“We know that,” my mother conceded. “It’s just that, with everything that has been going on, this doesn’t seem to make sense. I mean, it’s been four years, Eirwin. Four years wasted!” She paused to rub her temples. “Why now?”
“Got nothing to lose by trying do I? Like you said, I’ve already wasted four years. I don’t want to waste any more time.” I tried to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.
“Did you talk this over with Dana?”
“Yes,” I lied. Dana was my current psychologist and I had most definitely not spoken to her about this. If I was to tell her I’d been having dreams of a forest that called to me, she would write me off as crazy for sure. “She thinks it’s a great idea. A change of scenery will do me a world of good.” Now stop being so condescending and just let me go, I pleaded silently.
“Well, I guess your mind is made up then.” Did I imagine it or did I see a look of relief pass across both my parent’s faces? Yes, I thought bitterly, your burdensome daughter is leaving.
“When do you plan to make the move?” Mom asked, trying a little too hard to hide her eagerness.
I squashed the hurt deeper and answered, “As soon as I have everything packed.”
“Would you like any help?” The offer was made from obligation. I was not supposed to accept.
“No. I’ll be fine.” I smiled at them again, wishing I could glower instead. “I’m going to go get started.”
Later that night as I was making my way to the kitchen for a drink, I overheard Vince and Gina talking in the living room.
“What does it matter?” Vince was asking.
“I don’t know. It just doesn’t seem, responsible, to send her off in the state that she is in. She should be in a psych ward, not moving out on her own, of all the stupid things to do,” an exasperated Gina replied.
Vince brushed her off. “Let her go. Quite frankly, I’ll be happy to see her gone. I’m so sick of her moping around the place like she’s dying. Seriously.” I knew he would be shaking his head in that way he always did when he was fed up. “I mean, I have problems as well. So do you, so do a lot of other people and we all get on with it. She should too.”
“Well, I suppose you’re right but is it, responsible? I don’t want to look like bad parents.”
I huffed out a sardonic laugh. She wasn’t worried about me. She was worried about what others would think of her.
“What do you think people are thinking already?” Vince asked. “It will be better for her to go off on her own. We can give her some money so we don’t come across as completely apathetic.”
“Well, I suppose. But not too much money. We want to buy that boat after all,” Gina giggled like a teenager plotting their next prank. It made me sick. These people had raised me and yet they could carelessly toss me aside like a used condom. I gritted my teeth to stop myself from crying. They weren’t worth my tears. I just had to get out and I would never have to see them again.
“Of all the kids we could have picked…” was the last thing I heard Vince mutter as I walked away.
Within the week, I was gone. I found a quaint little house for rent – the house I currently occupy – packed my things and left. Now that I am here, I haven’t exactly found what I was looking for, what it was that drew me here. Not yet anyway. But it is here. I can feel it in the depths of my core; something warm, something thaumaturgic, captivating and all together wonderful. With it, comes the pleasant sensation one experiences when coming home. That is where I am. I am home and I have never once looked back.
Chapter Two – Magic in the Air
I settled effortlessly into my new life. The people of Franklin are some of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. They cared but did it without being overly pushy or nosy. If you didn’t want to talk about something, they would let it be. If you wanted to be alone, they would leave you alone. It was perfect. After only a few weeks, I began to feel much better than I had felt in a long time. My strength and energy returned, I slept a full eight hours every night, the chatter that constantly invaded my head calmed to a barely audible voice and I was getting reacquainted with happiness. The open wound that had dug itself into my soul began to close and become refreshingly numb. I knew, though, that it would not close completely until I found what was missing. How I wished I had known to come here sooner rather than wasting four years searching for a cure to my elusive illness. Although, I probably hadn’t been ready. I had grown up a lot in those four years. Sometimes I felt more like I was seventy-two rather than twenty-seven. Thankfully, I was starting to feel physically younger again but mentally, I would never be the same. I had matured in a way that only happens when you go through something difficult. It was hard for me to relate to people, especially people my own age; which was one reason why I had stuck to myself at first, taking long, solitary walks in the forest, always searching for that missing piece for which I ached so desperately. I picked up a job in a small, friendly coffee house and everything was going smoother than I could have imagined. The dreams continued to plague me only, they were different now. Something still called to me, but it was no longer the forest. It was something else, something within the forest. The dreams never revealed what it was, always keeping it just out of reach. Whenever I thought I was about to catch a glimpse, I would wake up. It was extremely frustrating. At least I had the coffee house to distract me. I was even starting to make a few friends. As for my studies, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pick up where I had left off. Dancing was emotional. For me, it was a way to release pent up feelings, a way to express myself in ways that words never could. I wasn’t sure if I could handle that just yet. I wasn’t sure if my knee could either. Thankfully, the surgery had gone well and my knee functioned normally yet, I was still terrified to try and dance again. I didn’t want to fail but I wasn’t sure I wanted to succeed either. So, I decided to just leave it alone for the time being. I even avoided music as much as I could, which was incredibly difficult. I loved music and had a very broad taste from reggae to rock. Music was another way for me to vent. There was always a song that could relate to what I was going through. I felt an almost spiritual connection to both dance and music. When I listened to a song or a piece of music, it felt like I was listening to the artist’s soul as well as my own. It was my opinion that life could not exist without music. Now, I avoided it as much as I could. The emotions behind it – the passion, the sorrow, the joy, the heartache – were too much for me. They made me feel as though I was drowning in a bottomless ocean that I would never swim my way out of. Since coming here however, I had learned to somewhat block this sensitivity of mine. Well, perhaps block was not the appropriate word. More like cope; like I had somehow grown bigger on the inside and now had more space to put everything I felt. I was also learning how to single out a specific emotion from the swarm, to differentiate between people and animals and from person to person. It was encouraging, giving me hope that one day, I would be able to carry this with ease.
“So, do you want to come?”
I blinked. “Huh?” I shook myself out of my ruminations and focused on the source of the voice; Angie, one of the waitresses. Angie was lovely. She was only a few years older than me and had this completely laid-back way about her that made anyone feel relaxed and comfortable in her presence. I liked her immediately, though I still kept my distance. Getting close to people scared me. Everyone back in Miami had left and I was petrified of that same thing happening again. Making friends had not been a part of my plan. In fact, I had thought I would be much better off alone. It would certainly be more peaceful. Then I’d met Angie and she slowly inched herself into my heart without even really trying. I had to admit, it was nice having someone else to talk to again. She was genuine. She wasn’t trying to be somebody she wasn’t. Not like the people I had thought were my friends in Miami.
“The party tomorrow night?” Angie prompted. “Do you want to come? We can go together of course.” She smiled at me, aware of my reticence.
“Oh, right! I had completely forgotten about that.”
Angie rolled her eyes at me. “Why does that not surprise me?”
I shrugged my shoulders innocently. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Sure,” Angie scoffed. “I swear you are living in another world sometimes,” she said, nudging me fondly.
Another world. Why did that set bells ringing in my head and a flag waving frantically, trying to grab my attention? An intense shock ran through my body. I felt like I should know something – something I had known all my life and had forgotten. The wound inside me gave a shudder. It could sense I was drawing nearer to the cure, the soothing balm that would make it whole. I gasped as the bells picked up their tempo. It was all I could do to not clap my hands to my ears.
“I… um…” I could hardly hear myself speak.
Angie’s green eyes were brimming with concern as she peered at me. “Eirwin? Are you alright?”
I took a deep breath to try and clear my head. I wanted nothing more than to run into the forest, to lose myself among the trees. A map formed itself in my mind; a perfect picture of the layout of the forest with a clear-cut line tracing a path into its very heart, further than I had ever ventured. It took all my willpower to keep my legs standing still instead of letting them whisk me away. Where did that path lead?
“Eirwin?” Angie’s concern was growing rapidly. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“N.. Nothing,” I managed to say. As I spoke, the din in my head eased somewhat, becoming more of a background noise. The map was burned into my memory, waiting there patiently until I could follow it. “Sorry,” I stammered, glancing sheepishly at Angie. “I… I have dizzy spells sometimes. It’s nothing. I used to get them a lot more but they’re not as bad now.” It was a weak cover story but it would have to do. Besides, it wasn’t exactly a lie.
“Do you need me to take you to Doc?”
“No. No, I’ll be alright.”
Angie frowned, not quite believing me. “Did you eat breakfast? Maybe your blood sugar dropped.”
“Yes,” I answered. I rarely skipped meals anymore. I was enjoying my food a lot more and had managed to put on some weight. “It’s just something that happens every now and then. Low blood pressure I think. I’m fine,” I added in what I hoped was a reassuring manner.
Angie pursed her lips a moment. “Ok. I’ll leave it be for now. Just promise me that if it gets worse, you will let me take you to Doc.”
I nodded, grateful I had been let off the hook.
“So,” said Angie, picking up where she had left off. “Do you want to come to the party?”
“Remind me what it is?”
“A bunch of us are heading out to Standing Indian Picnic Grounds. There was supposed to be a fire and marshmallows but in this weather… Phew!” She wiped a hand dramatically across her forehead. “Anyway, there will be music, wine, and…” she paused with a smirk, “you can check out some of the local scenery.”
“Cool. It’s so pretty here I could never get enough of the scenery.”
Angie rolled her eyes again. “My gosh, Eirwin. You can be so dense sometimes. I mean the male scenery. A new girl like you will draw plenty of attention.” She grinned and winked.
“Oh. I’m not really interested in anything like that right now. I’m sort of trying to rediscover myself first.” I gulped, realizing I had just revealed something personal but Angie went on as though it was nothing out of the ordinary.
“That’s fair enough. Doesn’t stop you from being able to have a browse at what’s available, you know, for future reference.”
I smiled. She was right. What harm could it do to have a peek? It had been so long since I’d had a girlfriend to giggle over silly things with and I did need to start broadening my horizons. I was quite comfortable and cozy where I was but it wasn’t moving me forward. It was time to be brave and dip my toes in the deep end. “I’ll be there.”
Angie’s plump lips stretched into a beaming smile. “Awesome! It’s going to be so much fun! We’ll figure out the details later. We better get back to work or Bernie will pop a vein.”
I was on the morning shift and it was still early on what was promising to be a beautiful winter’s day. The weather had remained unusually warm since I had arrived in the Fall and everyone was grumbling about global warming and climate change. All valid points although, was that really the cause? For some reason, I felt like the weather and I were connected. While the heat chased some of the internal chill away, I could still feel it, running in the deep currents of my blood and bones. How could the weather be dependent on a person? It was a foolish thought and I tried to dismiss it only, it clung to me, sticking like glue. I couldn’t shake it no matter how ridiculous I told myself it was.
As if she had heard Angie’s and my conversation, Bernice appeared in front of us.
“Having a nice chat, ladies?”
Bernice and her husband Mark were the owners of this little café and though both were wonderful people, they ran a tight ship and wouldn’t let anyone get away with being lazy; which was fair enough. They were running a business after all.
“Sorry, Bernie,” I volunteered. “It was my fault. I just had a little dizzy spell but I’m all good now.”
Bernie frowned. “Do you need to see Doc?”
“I already suggested that,” Angie cut in. “But she says she is fine now.”
Bernie looked to me, eye brows raised in question.
“I really am alright. If it gets any worse I will be sure to tell you.”
“You’d better,” she demanded, pointing a finger at me.
I made the cross sign over my heart. “Cross my heart.”
She sighed and patted my face. “I worry about you, kiddo. Don’t push yourself, ok, and get something cold to drink. This blasted heat will be the death of us all,” she groused.
I smiled at how lucky I was to have found such wonderful people. “Thanks, Bernie.”
With that, she gave a firm nod and shooed us off back to work.
The café was always busy and the rest of my shift passed by quickly. When it came time to finish, I flew out the door, calling my goodbyes as I went. I couldn’t wait to head into the forest and I had all afternoon to explore. Discarding my work clothes, I threw on a comfortable pair of soft denim shorts, tugged on a loose tank, laced up my walking shoes and threaded my thick, white-blonde braid through the back of a cap. People always assumed my hair was dyed and they were quite surprised when I told them it was natural. I would never dream of dying my hair. I absolutely loved the colour. It made me unique and if I dyed it, I wouldn’t be me anymore. Grabbing a bottle of water and a snack, I was ready.
The forest welcomed me with open arms and my body tingled as I stepped into the shade of the cedar trees. I savored the air for a moment then let my restless legs take over. They carried me onwards for a good hour, heedless of the heat as they followed the map that still filled my mind’s eye. It was like they were on autopilot and I had no control at all. I could have closed my eyes and my legs would have continued walking, always drawing me nearer to this mysterious destination. A part of me wanted to be afraid. The other part was excited, a touch impertinent and almost desperate. Hours drifted by and still I walked, unaware of the dimming light. Without warning, I stopped short of crossing a shallow stream. The bells were tolling in my head again and I had the distinct feeling I was being watched. A shiver made its way along my spine. I stood still, scanning my surrounds. Hesitantly, I opened my mouth and called, “Hello?”
Only the gentle breeze answered my call. Even the birds had fallen silent, a reverent silence as though they knew they were in the presence of something sovereign and majestic. The air vibrated tangibly and my hairs stood on end. Goosebumps coated my skin from head to toe.
“Is someone there?” I ventured in a hushed voice.
This time, it was more than the wind that answered. From behind, I heard a snuffling sound followed by a soft, low growl. My eyes widened in fright. Ever so carefully, I turned around and faced what I had already suspected would be there. A large bear stood about ten feet away with beady eyes locked straight on me. Frantically I searched my brain for what I was supposed to do in this situation. Before I moved here, I had educated myself on what to do in the case of a bear encounter.
No sudden moves.
Right. Don’t move. Check. What else was there? Yes, that’s right. Identify the bear. There was no doubting that it was a grizzly bear. Briefly, I berated myself for not investing in some bear spray but I knew I could never use it. I sure wouldn’t appreciate being sprayed in the face with pepper spray. No one would. So why should I subject a bear to that fate? In my opinion, it was just cruel. I remained still and tried to appear outwardly calm. This bear didn’t look like it was going to attack me. Staying calm was crucial. My brain recalled another piece of advice: speak passively.
“Hey there,” I said, amazed when my voice didn’t tremble. Oddly, I came to the realization that I was no longer afraid. Had I gone insane? Stranger still, my legs began to work again, moving me step by small step, closer to the bear. The bear dropped to all fours and mirrored my movement until we were nose to nose. I was in awe. This kind of thing just didn’t happen in the wild. Cautiously, the bear began to sniff at my face, my hair, my clothes and then, the biggest shock came when it pushed its head into my hand. I stroked the fur on its face and the bear let out a contented growl. Time seemed to stop as the bear and I got to know each other. It was utterly surreal. I didn’t know if it had been five minutes or fifty when the bear finally decided to take leave. I watched it amble away and disappear among the trees. My heart felt so full it could burst. There had been a connection between the bear and I, that of two kindred spirits. The bear was now out of sight yet, the sensation of being watched remained. Something else was still out there watching me and I got the sense that it was close by. At that moment, I noticed the lack of daylight and checked my watch, discovering that it would be full dark in less than an hour. There was no way to tell how far I had come. At least I could ascertain easily enough which direction I had to go. I’d barely taken two steps when I heard a voice behind me.
My heart leapt in my chest as I spun around. People could be far more dangerous than bears and not only was I alone, I hadn’t told anybody where I was headed either. Idiot!
“Are you alright? You seem lost?”
This was who had been watching me and the sight left me stunned. It was a man and undoubtedly the most beautiful man I had ever seen. He was so elegant that I found myself wondering if he was even human. No human male could look like that, surely, and despite the gathering darkness, I could still see him clearly. I shouldn’t have been able to tell that his eyes were warm, liquid amber or that his face was smooth, unmarred by blemish or wrinkle. His hair was the blazing colour of fire and cascaded past his shoulders in a satin waterfall. As I faced him with nervous uncertainty, his face filled with wonder and joy emanated from him. He almost seemed to glow as he smiled at me – a slow, gentle smile. Transfixed, I swallowed around the lump that had formed in my throat. My mouth had gone parch dry. I wasn’t sure if it was from fear or lust. There was something about this man that hinted at power, that made me want to throw myself at him and submit to his sweet torture. Tall and broad, his muscular physique gave off the sharp impression that he was strong and agile, a skilled predator; and I was his prey. The way he looked at me, so intense and confidant, dismissed any chance I had of escaping. As I stared at him, wide eyed, I felt two things happen simultaneously. The air grew noticeably sharper and crisper until it was the way it should be in winter. Secondly, as I shivered in the sudden cold, my soul convulsed in an almost painful shift. In contrast to the frigid air, the aching chill trapped in my body dissipated, replaced with warmth, and the open wound that had been waiting patiently for healing gave a great sigh that made its way up my throat and through my parted lips. The man watched me attentively and his gaze darkened with seductive promises. My heart pounded furiously in my chest and my breath quickened. What was happening to me? He took a graceful, languid step towards me, never taking his eyes off mine. My own feet responded, taking a shaky step towards him. My insides were churning. I felt like my body wanted to turn itself inside out and I could hardly stand under the assault. It was not an entirely unpleasant feeling. We continued to take slow, careful steps towards each other until we were inches apart. He was even more beautiful up close. I gave a start when he reached out a hand to caress my cheek.
“I found you,” he whispered.
“What…” I began to ask what he was talking about only to be halted by his lips covering mine in a fervent, concupiscent kiss. His hands moved down, coming to rest on each side of my waist and pulled me closer. It was like something else – or someone else – had taken over my body. I was no longer in charge as I pressed myself to him and met his kiss with equal passion. Half of me was screaming, demanding to know what was happening and why I was allowing this incursion, this violation of my body. The other part was completely lost, reveling in this fast and furious intimacy. It was as though summer had come at last to melt my icy heart and I relished the warmth, clutching at his arms still encircling my wait. Eventually, rationality returned and I pushed the man away, moving several paces back. The man blinked, obviously surprised and a little taken aback at my sudden resistance.
“What the hell am I doing?” I exclaimed. “I don’t even know you!” Fighting to breathe, I could sense the anxiety rising profusely. If I didn’t calm down I would fall into an all-out panic attack. Every inch of my body wanted to throw itself back into this man’s arms. Gritting my teeth against the tenacious desire and the returned familiar chill, I closed my eyes, scrabbling to regain control. When I opened them again, he was watching me with a troubled expression. “Who… who are you?” I managed to ask.
His expression went from troubled to one of pain. “You… you do not know me?”
I shook my head. “I’ve never seen you before in my life.” Anger was beginning to replace the fear and I planted my fists on my hips while glaring at him. “Just who do you think you are, catching a woman alone in the forest and thinking you can have your way with her? You’re just some sick freak, aren’t you?” My words shocked even myself. This was the old me talking, the me before I had gotten sick; the me that was bold and brave. I drew myself up and continued to glare at him defiantly.
He winced as if my words were physically hurting him and his eyes implored me to stop. “Leira…” He said softly.
Leira? “Argh!” I grabbed my head. “Argh! Why does it hurt?” My legs crumpled and I started to fall. The man leapt forward, catching me before I hit the ground. On the edge of consciousness, I gazed up into his beautiful face. Why did my heart ache so sweetly? I was sure I didn’t know this man. Wasn’t I? “Who…?” The question was cut short as my vision went black and my body limp.
Chapter Three – Man of Fire
I moaned softly as I came to. The surface beneath me was so soft and comfortable. It must be morning, I thought as I yawned and stretched. When I opened my eyes, blinking away the last vestiges of sleep, I sat bolt upright. This was not my room. This wasn’t even my house nor any house I knew. In a panic, I jumped out of the bed and nearly went crashing to the floor as a flood of dizziness overwhelmed me. It was then I noticed what I was wearing and my jaw dropped. Covering my body was a skimpy, satin nightgown of the palest blue – almost the same colour as my eyes – trimmed with intricate patterns of lace and ribbons. My cheeks flushed as I caught sight of myself in a full-length mirror. This nightgown stopped well above my knees and certainly did not leave much to the imagination. My hair fell in loose waves to my waist and was surprisingly untangled. All the events of earlier came pouring back and I almost fell again. I darted to the window and threw back the heavy, blue velvet drapes. It was dark. The full moon glinted brightly as if it were winking at me. No doubt it knew everything that had transpired and it didn’t seem likely that it was going share any of its secrets. Frowning at the silent moon, I let the drapes fall closed again and noticed the room flickering with light. It was coming from several candles placed about the room; on the chest of draws, the dressing table and bedside tables. One or more of them must have been scented because the faint smell of lavender filled the air. It was heavenly. Where am I? Logic told me I needed to find an exit and leave as soon as possible but my head pounded in protest whenever I took a step. My heart on the other hand, blossomed and soared higher than it had in a long time. If only I could understand why. Nausea roiled in my stomach and I came to the conclusion that the most sensible thing to do would be to get back in that glorious, four poster bed, get some rest and leave in the morning.
When I woke again, I found a tray laden with delicious breakfast foods, a crystal goblet filled with orange juice and an exquisite teapot filled with tea next to a matching cup and saucer sitting on the room’s small table. There was also a note, carefully folded and propped beside the goblet. The word ‘Leira’ was written upon it in an elegant script. Was this supposed to be for me? A brief flicker of recognition flared its flames, kindled for a moment by the name then quickly receded. Hesitantly, I picked it up and opened it.
“My dearest Leira,” it began in that graceful, flowing hand.
“I apologise from the bottom of my heart for my behaviour yesterday. I acted rashly and I beg your forgiveness. I never meant to startle or frighten you in any way. The possibility that you would not remember me did not even enter my mind and it breaks my heart that you do not. I can only ask that you please give me a chance to help you remember but I leave it to you. You need only say my name and I will come.
I was dumbfounded. So, his name was Kaido. I frowned. I knew that name. At least, I thought I did. It was a name from long, long ago. I read and re-read the note over and over yet the meaning remained unclear. Apparently, I knew this man and he knew me. From what I could ascertain, we had been quite close. With love. My heart gave a pleasant thud as I read those words. Was he trying to tell me we had been together? Yes, my wild heart screamed. As unbelievable as this whole situation was, being here made me feel complete in a way I had never felt. That wound torn into my soul was almost closed now. How could that be? For all I knew, this man could be some creep who preys on young, innocent women and tries to convince them they had been lovers just to get his kicks. You know that isn’t true, my heart chided. It was right. I did know. I knew I could trust this man with my life and that he would never seek to hurt me in any way. Then there was this overwhelming attraction I felt towards him. I sat down at the table and idly nibbled on a croissant as I pondered my options. There was really no question about it. I had to talk to him. I had to hear his side of the story. Again, there was that brief flicker of recognition in the back of my mind. I felt like I was standing on the precipice of a vast gully and if I took just one more step, I would find myself freefalling into a vast, long lost, yet neoteric, territory where there were sure to be answers. I picked up the note again.
“Just say my name and I will come…”
Wondering what exactly that meant, I opened my mouth to speak his name when I remembered my state of undress. Deep down, I wanted him to see me like this. I wanted to see the glow that had been in his eyes when he kissed me yesterday. I wanted him. There was no denying it. I must be losing my mind. I spied a robe hanging from a hook placed in the back of the bedroom door. It was a matching pale blue, of course. This man was nothing short of opulent. Maybe this is a castle and he’s a King. I giggled at the thought, an utterly embarrassingly girlish giggle. Shaking my head at my own fatuity, I tied the robe firmly around my waste. Then I sat down, held the note and softly murmured, “Kaido.”
I gasped as a powerful sensation gripped my body. My eyes widened and I shuddered as this sensation seized my heart, my soul, my entire being. Tears streamed down my cheeks from the intensity of the emotion. There was only one emotion like it. Love. I had thought myself in love with Ethan but compared to this, I may as well have loathed the guy. A soft knock came at the door and I hastily tried to gain some semblance of composure.
“Leira?” His warm, deep voice melted over me. “Did you call for me?”
“Yes, come in.”
My stomach was a mass of butterflies as the door inched open and that handsome head peeked around. Seeing me, he smiled a brilliant smile and stepped fully into the room. I couldn’t help but admire him, my eyes feasting as if they had been starved all their lives. He wore tight black jeans and a loose fitting white shirt on which he had left several buttons undone, revealing the smooth skin of his chest. His fiery hair was knotted together at the back. I liked it better loose, I decided. Still, he was a stunning, beautiful picture of male perfection. Stop it, Eirwin. Control.
“Please, have a seat. Would you like some tea?” I asked steadily, warily.
“I would love some. Thank you.” Kaido took the seat opposite me and I busied myself with pouring the tea into cups. Our hands touched as I passed him his tea and an electric shock traveled up my arm. I jumped and if he had not already been holding the cup, I would have spilt the liquid all over the table.
“Thank you,” he said again and smiled that disarming smile.
I looked down at my own cup and cleared my throat. “So, ah, I have some questions.”
His golden eyes sparkled. “I would be disappointed if you did not. Ask me anything. I vow to be nothing but honest with you.”
“Ok.” I paused a moment, deciding where I should begin. “So, ah, you know me?”
“I know you very well, intimately well in fact. I know you better than anyone else ever has.” The words were like sweet honey and I wanted to feed on every drop. I must not have been doing a good job at hiding my arousal because his expression changed from one of merriment to one of delicious temptation. I crossed my legs to stop them from jumping across the table and wrapping themselves around him.
Kaido blinked and sighed, shaking his head as if he were annoyed with himself. “I am sorry, Leira. You do not know how hard it is for me to control myself around you. It has been far too long since we… No. I will not push you. Please, continue.”
I couldn’t let him see I understood exactly what he meant. It could put me at a disadvantage and that might be dangerous, leading to events that once started, were difficult to stop.
“You call me ‘Leira.’ Why?”
“Leira is the name by which I know you.”
“So, you don’t know me as Eirwin?”
“Eirwin,” his tongue caressed the name, tasting it. “Eirwin means white as snow.” He shook his head in amusement. “Well, it certainly suits you but no, I have never heard you called that name. I still prefer Leira.”
The way he said the name Leira with such longing, like it was the most reverent name in the universe, gave me goosebumps. “What does Leira mean?”
“Snow.” It sounded like it meant something significant to him though I could not fathom what. Even so, it was a lovely name. I did not miss the fact that it had a similar meaning to Eirwin.
“When… Ah, that is, how long ago did you know me? You said it had been some time?”
“I have been searching for you for twenty-seven years, yet it feels so much longer since I last saw your face.”
“Twenty-seven years?” I repeated. That was my current age. Could it be a coincidence? “But I am only twenty-seven years old.”
He smiled tenderly at me. “Actually, you are much older than that.” My expression must have been comical as he chuckled softly. “Do not fear. You look wonderful for a lady of five hundred. Well, five hundred and twenty-seven.”
I chocked on the tea I had been about to swallow and was submitted to a violent coughing fit. Kaido jumped from his chair to pat me on the back. “Breathe, Leira. Breathe, my love.”
Gradually, the coughing subsided and I sucked in great gulps of air. “This is a joke, right?” I managed to stammer between wheezes. “Am I on a television show? One of those ones where poor, unsuspecting people get pranked?”
“I promised to be nothing but honest. Everything I speak is the truth.”
My breathing returned to normal but the rest of me still shook. I should just get up and leave right now. This man is obviously crazy! No matter how many times I tried to tell myself this, I could not bring myself to leave because, astonishingly, I believed him. I shook my head. I am definitely crazy! Maybe the answer to my next question would explain it all. I straightened and met his gaze with determination. He was still crouched beside me.
“Who are you?” I demanded.
Kaido tilted his head and studied me. “Perhaps it would be best if I simply showed you. This will probably come as a shock but I would have to show you at some point anyway.” He stood and moved a few paces away. For a moment, he appeared unsure of himself, anxious even. It did not suit him. “Keep an open mind,” he begged me.
Then, something utterly extraordinary happened, something that should have been impossible. Right before my eyes, Kaido began to transform. A blazing inferno engulfed his body and when it died down, a beautiful bird of vivid oranges and shimmering golds stood in his place. A few feathers of a rich, deep red decorated its tail. As though struck by lightning, I remembered the feather I had discovered all those months ago in the forest.
“You…” I breathed. “You were there!”
The majestic creature blinked, seemingly confused. “I was where?”
The voice was Kaido’s only, it wasn’t spoken aloud. Instead, I heard it in my head. I almost laughed. Obviously. Since when can birds talk?!
This was too much. As I stared at the bird, my body began to tremble of its own accord and a blinding light burst from my skin. I screamed. “What’s happening to me?!” I tried to fight it, tried to stop the rolling change from sweeping over me. It didn’t hurt. It felt natural; even as I saw feathers appear on my arms and legs. But I wasn’t ready for this. And so I ran. I fled from the room as my body continued to flicker between this half-bird, half-human form.
“Leira! Please, wait! You need to know!”
I ignored the passionate plea that resounded in my head and ran as if my life depended on it. I had no idea where I was going however, with luck, I found the exit and dashed out the door. Calling it a castle had not been far off, albeit I did not take the time to stop and have a proper look. My inner senses told me which direction to go and I didn’t stop until I reached my quiet, peaceful little house.
Chapter Four – Questions
I flung myself through the door of my home. By this time, my body had calmed down and the shifting had stopped which was fortunate given the fact that my house was not empty.
“Eirwin!” Angie rushed towards me and grabbed me fiercely in her arms. “Thank goodness you’re alright!”
I fought for breath and leaned heavily on Angie to stop my legs from caving under me.
“You’re exhausted! Sit down, here.” She guided me to a chair at my small kitchen table and raced to get me a glass of water. I drank it down in a single gulp.
“Where were you?” Angie squealed. She was near to having a fit. “You didn’t show up for your shift. I tried to call you and when there was no answer I decided to just come on over to see if you were alright only, you weren’t here! I checked all over town but no one had seen you since you left the café yesterday afternoon and…” She stopped as she finally realised my state of dress. “What are you wearing?” I glanced down at myself. The robe that was now riddled with rips and tears hung open, revealing the skimpy nightgown.
I shrugged. “My pajamas?” I offered weakly.
Angie sat down opposite me and took my hands in hers. “Eirwin, what happened?”
Without warning, a laugh escaped my lips and I couldn’t stop. I laughed until tears poured down my cheeks and my ribs ached. Angie stared at me as though I had gone mad. For what seemed like the one-millionth time, I wondered if maybe I had. I could rock a straightjacket… The visual image made me laugh even harder. The laughter died as Angie continued to stare at me, clearly perturbed and unsure what to do.
“I’m sorry, Ang. You wouldn’t believe my story even if I told you.” I shook my head with a wry smile. I wasn’t even sure I fully believed it. Maybe I had been drugged somehow and it had all been a hallucination. The only way I would ever know would be to go back there again, retrace my steps. It would be easy enough to do. The map was not only still seared onto my brain but I could now sense Kaido as though he were a part of me. I knew that no matter where he was, I would be able to find him. It should have felt invasive given that I knew he could also sense me. Instead, it made me feel safe.
“You’re not going to tell me?” Angie cried. “Do you have any idea how worried I have been? How worried everyone has been?” She took a deep breath. “Eirwin, you have to tell us. The police will be back here soon. They and half the town are out searching for you. I opted to stay here in case you showed up.”
I sighed. “I went for a walk in the forest yesterday after work and got lost. That’s all.”
Angie clearly didn’t believe me and eyed me skeptically. “You went for a walk in your nightie?”
“Would you believe me if I said yes?”
“No.” Her answer was blunt.
“Of course you wouldn’t. Who would?” I mumbled quietly. “Angie…” I began.
“Go and get changed. It will only raise more suspicions if the police arrive to find you in that state. Quickly!” She pulled me to my feet and ushered me to my room. “They will be here in ten minutes and there are obviously things you don’t want anyone to know.” Before closing my door, she jabbed a finger in my face. “But don’t think for one moment that I am going to let it go easily. You have your secrets and I respect that however, there is only so much I am willing to ignore.” The door banged shut after her. She wasn’t angry with me. I knew Angie well enough by now to tell that her mood was a side effect of her concern.
The robe was a mess. I almost felt sorry that something so pretty had been ruined. I kicked it under the bed, and the nightie with it – I would throw them away later – then grabbed a pair of shorts and a shirt. A quick braid tidied my hair and I went to rejoin Angie in the kitchen with minutes to spare. As the police walked in, Angie ran her hands through her wavy, chocolate brown locks, smoothed her clothes and flashed Officer Brandon Jakes a gorgeous smile. Angie had had a crush on him for longer than I had known her and I was convinced he felt the same yet, they continued to do this little dance with neither of them wanting to make the first move. He was handsome with his short dark hair and coffee coloured eyes. Broad shoulders and chest caused his shirt to strain as it tried to contain all that muscle. Despite his clean-cut and dreamy good looks, I couldn’t help but recall an even more ravishingly pulchritudinous and dazzling gentleman. Squashing the thought before I could blush, I focused on Officer Jakes.
“You gave us quite the scare, Eirwin,” he remarked once they had established I was unharmed. “Maybe just remember to let someone know where you’re going next time, ay?”
I nodded sheepishly. Thankfully, they had bought my story about simply getting lost in the forest. I hadn’t really been in Franklin all that long so it was perfectly plausible.
“Sorry, Jakes,” I replied with just the right hint of bashfulness.
“Alright then, we’ll go let everyone know that you have been found and that you’re okay. Do you need anything?”
“No, thank you. I’ll be fine.” I stood to see them out the door.
Officer Jakes turned back. “Angie? You’ll be sticking around for a while, right?”
“Yeh, I’ll keep an eye on her,” Angie promised.
“Good.” Jakes grinned at her, his gaze lingering a moment then, with a wave he hopped into the patrol car with his partner, Officer Landen. Angie sighed dreamily as we watched them pull away and I went back inside to make some tea.
“Want some?” I asked Angie, indicating the kettle.
“Sure.” She watched me silently as I prepared the tea, an air of expectation about her. Should I tell her? I knew she wouldn’t push me to talk but Angie was a patient woman. She would simply wait me out until I caved.
“So, when are you going to ask Jakes out already?” I implored, feigning exasperation.
Usually, the subject of Brandon Jakes was enough to distract her for hours. Now, she just looked at me cynically.
“That isn’t going to work this time, sweetheart.”
I sighed and dropped my head into my hands. We sat in silence, sipping our tea while I mulled over what to say.
“How far have you ventured into the forest?” I finally asked her.
“Um, I don’t know exactly. Pretty far, I guess.”
Taking a chance, I stepped out on a limb and asked another question. “Have you ever come across a castle?”
Angie blinked at me over her teacup. “I can’t say I have, no. Why do you ask?”
“Well, I… I, um, sort of found one.” I held my breath as I waited for that to sink in.
Her expression was nothing short of pessimistic. “You found a castle? In the Nantahala Forest?”
I nodded. “That’s where I was last night. I did get lost,” I professed adamantly, “and a man found me.” My cheeks immediately blossomed into a bright shade of crimson.
“Must have been some man,” Angie smirked, raising her eye brows. I don’t think she believed a thing I was saying.
“It’s true. You wanted to know what happened and I’m telling you. This man found me and I passed out. He must have carried me back to that castle because when I came to, I was lying in a luxurious bed in a room I’d never seen before.”
Angie studied me closely, a slight frown creasing her forehead as she chewed on her bottom lip. “I think I should take you to see Doc,” she repeated her suggestion from the day before. “Dizzy spells and now this… Maybe you were hallucinating. Have you started any new medications? Or, ah… Not that I would judge you if you did but…”
“I don’t take drugs,” I interjected. “And I haven’t started any new meds. I considered hallucinations as a possibility but, that doesn’t explain the nightgown and robe.”
“Hmm, true. You got me there.” I could almost see her brain working, the cogs slowly turning as she tried to comprehend my words. “Okay,” she continued. “Say you are telling the truth. What happened after that?”
Tentatively, I told her the whole story in chronological order. She listened, transfixed as I described the strange bird of fire.
“A phoenix,” she interrupted. “You’re talking about a phoenix.”
Phoenix. At the sound of that word, my body shuddered and my head began to spin. I felt drunk with immense power, caught in its grasp like a fly trapped in a spider’s web. “Oh no! No no no! Not again!”
As before, a bright, powerful light wrapped itself around me, flickering like flames. Angie almost fell flat as she leapt up in shock or fright – probably both – and bounded several paces away from me, exhaling in a barrage of expletives. As I watched, feathers sprouted from my skin and a wonderful sensation gripped me with a warm, gentle caress. This can’t be happening! Straining with effort, I tried to force it to stop, willed it with all my might. Just when I thought I had lost the battle, the light faded and I was completely human again. Angie was huddled in the corner of my kitchen. Her face had lost all colour and she was trembling from head to toes.
“Angie…” I whispered. I was still shaking and I felt completely exhausted. Everything became hazy and I reached for Angie one last time before my head crashed to the table and my world was plunged into darkness.
I awoke in my own bed this time. I could hear two people having a quiet discussion outside my door. I recognized one voice as Angie’s.
“No, she doesn’t take drugs,” Angie was saying.
“What about any medications?” The other voice was male and not one I could put a face to.
“You would have to ask her. She did say she had not started taking anything new but I don’t know if she was already taking something else,” answered Angie.
My door swung open, revealing the owner of the male voice to be Doctor Norton, better known as Doc.
“Ah, I see our patient is awake.” He smiled at me and his blue eyes sparkled.
Doc was great. Everyone loved him. Despite being in his sixties, hardly any lines marked his cheery face and he still moved about with ease, making mobile visits to patients and running his clinic. Only the grey in his hair gave away his age.
“How are we feeling?” He sat on the edge of my bed to check my pulse as he spoke.
“I feel alright, actually.” I couldn’t believe Angie had called him after what she had witnessed. Should I be angry? No. What would be the point in that? She had done what she thought best under the given circumstances and to be honest, I probably would have done the same.
After a thorough examination and Doc’s assurance that I would be fine, he left, leaving behind strict instructions for plenty of rest and fluids. Angie saw him out and returned to my room, taking Doc’s place on the edge of my bed heaving a great sigh.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly, concentrating on her hands folded on her lap. “I didn’t know what to do.”
“It’s alright,” I assured her. After that, I didn’t know what to say. What had just transpired was not supposed to happen in real, everyday life. It was the stuff of fantasy and make-believe.
“So…” Angie started, glancing at me dubiously. “You’re, what? A shapeshifter?”
Anxiety bloomed in my chest. Hearing her confirm what had transpired made the reality of it hit home. I couldn’t deny it anymore. “I don’t know what I am. Whatever this is, it started a while ago I think.”
“What do you mean?”
It was pointless to hide now. I told her everything; all about my life in Miami, how I had started to change and how it had all led to me moving here. The longer it went on, the crazier I sounded. I had to give Angie credit for listening so calmly.
“I don’t really know much about the phoenix myth,” Angie admitted. “I do know that they are supposed to be wonderful, caring, kind-hearted creatures.”
“So, are you saying that you actually believe me?” I asked incredulously.
“Not exactly, but, I can’t deny what I just witnessed. Maybe you have some foreign disease or something, who knows.”
“I don’t feel sick,” I informed her. “I actually feel pretty good, the best I have felt in a long time. In fact, I think I could even go to the party tonight. It would do us good to let our hair down and have some fun.”
Angie looked doubtful. “You heard what Doc said; plenty of rest and fluids. A party isn’t exactly restful. Besides, what if… um, what if it happens again?”
It was not hard to guess that she was referring to my shape shifting display. “It won’t.” I felt certain that it didn’t just happen spontaneously. There had to be a trigger of some kind. “Plus, we still have ages before we have to leave. I’ll rest until then.”
“Okay, well, I’ll stay here and we will see how you feel by this afternoon. In the meantime, why don’t we do some research? It might give us a bit of an idea about what’s happening to you?”
I had never been so grateful for a person in my life. “Sounds like a plan.”
So, for the rest of the morning we researched everything we could find on obscure diseases and illnesses. When that revealed nothing helpful, we moved onto the more far-fetched theories about phoenixes and shapeshifters, though it was hard to take such research seriously. In the end, we didn’t really come up with much of a conclusion.
“This is getting us nowhere,” Angie sighed in frustration. “If only there was someone else we could talk to.”
“Technically, there is,” I reminded her.
“Oh right, the recondite Kaido.” She cocked her head, considering the options. “Here is what I think we should do. Tomorrow, we will head into the forest together and see if we can find this castle of yours. How long do you think it took for you to make it back home when you left yesterday?”
“A few hours? I’m not sure. I just wanted to get home. But it couldn’t have been more than a few hours.” Had I really been able to run for that long though? I wasn’t as fit as I had once been.
“So, we should make it there by afternoon if we get an early start. Right, that’s what we will do. Now, how about we forget all this weirdness until then and watch a movie? I don’t know about you but I feel like my brain is going to implode.”
“Angie,” I called as she got up to put a movie in the DVD player. “Thank you. Really. You’re the best.”
“I know,” Angie acknowledged dramatically. “Make sure you don’t forget it.”
We both chuckled then settled back in my bed to watch the movie.
That afternoon, it started to rain and the party was rescheduled to the following weekend. Admittedly, I was quite relieved. Instead, Angie and I watched a couple of movies then went to bed so we could start out bright and early in the morning. My stomach flip-flopped around like a fish out of water, full of nerves. What would we find? Would we find anything at all? I buried myself deeper into my blankets and closed my eyes but sleep was a long time coming.
Chapter Five – Answers
It was a beautiful sunny sky that greeted us as we set off on our hike. We tried not to think too much about what we were doing or what we were looking for. Hours flew by and we must have walked several miles yet we found no evidence of any castle. Dejected, I sat down on a rock and let my head fall into my hands. Would I never get answers? Was I doomed to feel incomplete for the rest of my life?
“Oh, Kaido,” I muttered sullenly. “Where are you?”
“Don’t give up, Eirwin. There is something going on. I saw it too remember, saw you start to… change.” The notion still made her uncomfortable. “So, you’re not crazy. If you’re crazy then I must be too!” Angie sat down beside me, pulling a water bottle from her pack.
“You called for me?”
Both of us jumped, causing water to come flying out of Angie’s mouth and me to shriek in surprise. It was Kaido, as alluring and elegant as I remembered him. Angie’s jaw nearly hit the ground and she threw me a wide-eyed look. It wasn’t often that Angie was left speechless.
“Um, not exactly,” I answered timidly. “It was an accident.”
“Oh.” The hope on Kaido’s face vanished.
“But,” I amended quickly, “I am glad you came.”
He watched me quietly, curiously, waiting for me to go on except, I had no idea what to say. Maybe I should start with an apology. “I am sorry for running out on you yesterday. You have to understand how much of a shock it all was.”
Crossing his arms, he leant lazily against a tree. “Does it still shock you?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “But I am ready to understand.”
“So, you have come for more answers.”
I nodded and he smiled sweetly. “Then you will have to come with me.” Kaido held out his hand and beckoned me to come closer.
“Ahem,” Angie cut in. “Where she goes, I go.”
“Kaido, this is my friend, Angie. She, um, she knows about me... us.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Angie. Any friend of Leira’s, ah, that is Eirwin’s, is a friend of mine, however I must apologise. You cannot follow where we are going but I promise Eirwin will be completely safe and shall return to you unharmed.” He even threw in a bow, hand to heart as though swearing an oath.
I took Angie’s hand. “I will be alright.”
She squeezed my hand tightly and I feared she would not let me go. “Angie, please,” I begged. “I have to do this.”
Finally, she let go. “Be careful,” she warned.
“I will.” I took Kaido’s offered hand and together we strode into the forest.
After a short while, the castle appeared before us though I could have sworn it was not there a moment ago. I would have seen it. Slowly, I took a few steps back and the castle disappeared again and so had Kaido. I moved forward again and there it was, standing tall and solid.
Kaido chuckled at my expression. “This castle is hidden from human sight. It exists in a slightly different dimension, accessible via the gateway we just crossed. If a human were to pass through the gateway, they would see nothing but forest. We, on the other hand – and other creatures like us – can move through dimensions. Have a look at the sky,” he invited. “I dare say you did not notice it yesterday.”
I glanced up and gasped. The sky was awash with surreal hues of lilac and gold with fluffy orange clouds drifting lazily along. “I don’t understand. Are you saying we are on a different planet or something, or an alternate reality? Parallel universe?”
“No, we are still on Earth only, a slightly different version of Earth. So, yes, alternate reality would be correct, or alternate dimension.”
I was never any good at science back at school and this was getting into quantum physics type stuff.
“Think of it like this,” Kaido offered, “there are several dimensions that exist all at once and they overlap each other at various points. Humans are not aware of their existence, nor are they able to accidently cross over into one.”
“But, wouldn’t that mean that there is another version of me here? Doesn’t the theory of alternate dimensions or whatever, state that everything possible exists as alternate dimensions?” It was something like that I was sure.
“That is true for humans. However, it is not a problem for interdimensional creatures like us.”
“What?” This was getting too much for my brain to handle.
“Basically, there cannot be more than one of a creature who was made to travel interdimensionally.”
That made sense, I supposed. “Why can’t we just live in the same dimension as humans? Wouldn’t that make things easier?”
“Humans are not ready to accept our existence just yet. Who knows, maybe they never will be. To them, we are creatures of fantasy, fiction and myth.”
Again, it made some sort of sense if one was willing to think illogically. This time, I could walk into the castle on my own two feet and took my time to admire it. I felt like I was in a fairytale and Kaido was Prince Charming while I was Cinderella. Kaido escorted me through the entry into a comfortable sitting room, encouraging me to make myself at home. As I was settling into one of the cozy, oversized armchairs, a man-like creature appeared at the door. Though it had the body shape of a human male, it was not human. The skin covering his body – I assumed it was a male – was green, as was the hair falling loosely to its shoulders. His slightly tilted eyes were also green and held a mischievous twinkle. He wore no clothing save for a pair of brown pants and a brown, plaited cord tied around its head. Intricate patterns of vine-like swirls covered all the bare skin I could see, including the face. Despite the foreign appearance, something about the creature was familiar.
It spoke in a lilting, almost musical voice. “Ah, apologies, Kaido. I see you have company. I was awaiting your arrival however, I can return at another time if this would be more advantageous to you.”
“No apology is necessary, friend. Allow me to reintroduce you to Leira, although she goes by Eirwin now.”
Larken’s hand flew to his mouth. “You found her,” he whispered. I stood as he walked over to me. “I would not even have recognized you.” Then, without any warning, the creature threw its arms around me in a tight embrace. “I am so happy to see you again!” Not wanting to cause offense, I returned the embrace. “We have so much to catch up on, my sweet Leira. Ah but it shall be fun around here once more!” Larken was grinning from ear to ear.
“Am I not fun, Larken?” Kaido countered, pretending to sulk.
Larken laughed cheerfully. “You, my friend, are far too serious and passionate for real fun.”
“Some of us have to be,” Kaido retaliated. “Alas, I must keep Eirwin with me for the time being.”
Larken pouted. “That’s not fair. Leira will not stand for that. Will you?”
“Ahhh, I… I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I don’t actually remember anything.”
Larken laughed again. “Oh, still the same I see. Nice try, Leira. You won’t get away from me that easily.”
“She speaks the truth, Larken,” Kaido informed him solemnly. “She does not remember who or what she is.”
Larken switched his gaze between the two of us and seemed to wilt as he finally realised this was no joke. “You… You truly remember nothing?”
I shook my head sadly, regretfully. I didn’t want to upset anyone else. I had already hurt Kaido with my amnesia.
“Is that even possible?” Larken asked Kaido.
“It is not unheard of,” Kaido replied. “Sometimes the spirit chooses to reincarnate into human form. We do not know why. It is so rare that we have not had time to study it properly.”
“Ahem,” I cleared my throat to get their attention. What on Earth were they talking about? Reincarnation? I was here for answers, not for them to speak about me over my head. “Could someone just tell me what is going on? Please.” There was a note of desperation in my voice.
Kaido gave a start then bowed his head to me. “Of course. My apologies, Eirwin. Larken, you are welcome to stay if you like,” he offered.
“I think I will. Maybe I can help jog some memories,” he said hopefully.
I smiled at him. “Thank you. Um, I was wondering though, what are you?”
“You don’t even know that much?” he scoffed playfully. His good humor had returned. “I’m a Sprite, a forest Sprite to be precise.”
“Cool,” I remarked. “Are you from the same place we are?”
“Indeed, I am.”
It appeared I lived among some remarkable creatures in this alternate reality. “So, what am I?”
Kaido took a deep breath, hesitating slightly. “You are a Winter Phoenix. I, on the other hand, am a Summer Phoenix.”
My mouth gaped. Given my body’s odd behaviour of late, this should have been easy to believe. It was not. “Are you trying to tell me that we control the weather?”
“Not exactly,” Kaido corrected. “We keep the balance. You may have noticed it has been rather warm here despite it being winter?”
I nodded in affirmation and Kaido continued. “That is because you were not here. Together, you and I, along with the spring and fall Phoenixes, maintain equilibrium between the seasons. Without one of us, the weather changes accordingly. We did not have our winter Phoenix, therefore the weather remained warm.”
My suspicions had been right. I was connected to the weather, as outrageous as that sounded. “If that is the case, why has it not cooled down since I came back?”
“You are an embodiment of winter – an embodiment of winter that does not remember who she is and hence, winter does not remember how to be winter. It is not your fault, my love,” he was quick to reassure me when he saw the worry and guilt on my face.
I was crestfallen. It suddenly became imperative that I remember and I motioned Kaido to go on, listening intently, hanging on every word he said as he went on to tell me about my past. Some twenty-seven years ago, I had experienced my first rebirth which made me young for a Phoenix. Instead of dying, Phoenixes burst into flames and are then reborn from the ashes, making us immortal in a roundabout way. Kaido had been through two rebirths which meant he was still young as well. We had been lovers. That much I had surmised for myself but still, to hear it confirmed made my cheeks heat up.
“So, we’ve ah, we’ve…” I couldn’t bring myself to finish the sentence although Kaido knew full well what I was trying to say.
“We have,” he replied silkily.
My whole body flushed crimson which Kaido and Larken found quite hilarious. Apparently, I was not usually so shy. It was at this point in the story, Kaido paused and a deep melancholy clouded his mood. “This is where things went very wrong.”
“What happened to me?” I asked gently.
“Phoenixes have the ability to shapeshift into human form. It has not always been this way. It is a skill we developed over time to fit in more with our human neighbours. Despite the fact that they cannot accept us, they need us. Originally, a long time ago, we did share the same world with the humans until they began to hunt us for our feathers. They did not know our purpose, that we kept the seasons in balance for them so we learnt how to shapeshift. But God did not make us to live exclusively as a human. If we remain in the human form for too long, we fall ill. Sound familiar?”
It most certainly did. Everything was slowly coming together, like pieces of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, although his mention of God surprised me a little. I guess the big man upstairs really was God of all; even supposed myths and legends.
After a moment, he went on. “Phoenixes like to keep their rebirths secret so when it is time, we will go off somewhere on our own. Not even our closest loved ones know where. For some reason, during the rebirth, you decided to send your spirit to a human and I could no longer sense you as I once had. Half of me died that day. I searched everywhere for you. Then, a while ago, I began to feel something tickling at the edges of my consciousness. At first, I thought I was imagining it but it grew stronger and I knew that it was you. The connection was not strong enough for me to track you but I was able to send you dreams to show you where to find me.”
“Those dreams were from you?” I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about that. I’d thought I’d come here of my own volition but instead, it turned out I had been beguiled and lured here. “You brought me here! What if I didn’t want to come? Did you ever stop to think about what I wanted? Maybe I disappeared for a reason!” I began pacing angry lines across the floor.
“My only thought was to help you, to show you the way back home,” Kaido explained sincerely as the corners of his mouth turned down. “I did not think you would wish to remain hidden.”
Immediately, I regretted my harsh words. “I’m sorry, Kaido. It’s just that, I thought I had come here on my own, that I had planned this new start.”
Kaido seemed confused. “You did. I did not force you. You could have ignored the dreams if you wanted to.”
Now I was confused. “Ignore them! I could ignore them as easily as I could ignore the sun or the moon! I could not get enough of those dreams. I knew they held answers to what was happening to me and the pull was so strong I could not resist!”
“They were your own feelings.” Kaido’s face brightened. “A part of you must have started to remember me for it to be like that.”
I relaxed, glad that I had not been a puppet after all. There was still one thing Kaido had not explained to me – why was I able to feel the emotions of others and, there was also the incident with the bear. When I asked the question, Kaido nodded.
“I was coming to that. We Phoenixes are extremely sensitive to each other and to everything and everyone around us. We are kindred spirits with every living thing, even humans despite their lack of affinity for us. The bear was simply greeting a friend. Also,” he added, “I had spread the word that you may have returned and asked if all forest creatures could keep a look out. When I saw that bear greet you, my heart nearly leapt into my throat. Your human form has changed since last I saw it so, I could not be sure it was you until you turned around and looked at me with those glorious eyes. Your hair and eyes have remained the same.”
I ducked my head self-consciously under his piercing scrutiny. “Oh!” I exclaimed, suddenly remembering something I had to ask. “Were you watching me one day? It was months ago now. I was walking in the forest and the distinct feeling of being watched hit me. I didn’t see who or what it was but I found a feather, a dark red feather. The wind whisked it away before I could grab it and it almost seemed to beckon me to follow it. Was that you?”
“Ah,” Kaido recalled. “That is what you meant yesterday when you asked if I was there. No, it was not me. I did not lay eyes on you until yesterday. The watcher you are referring to was Aski, a Fall Phoenix. He was one of the first to spot you.”
“Does any of this jog your memory?” Larken piped up abruptly.
I sighed heavily. “Not really.”
“Perhaps if I tell of you of our friendship,” Larken wondered aloud.
“Please do,” I encouraged him. “I would like to know.”
Larken had me laughing with all the silly antics we used to get up to. Apparently, we had become fast friends from the moment we had met. “How could I have forgotten such a wonderful life? How could I forget each of you?”
“We know of ten cases where the same has happened. Ten documented cases in all our history. Of course, there could be more that we missed,” Kaido admitted, “however, Phoenixes tend to be rather good at keeping track of history.”
“What happened to these others?”
Kaido shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Well, as far as we can ascertain, there were various causes. Grief was a major contributor. Sometimes, when a Phoenix experiences profound grief, it can trigger a rebirth, almost as though they burn up from the agony of heart break. The theory is that they seek to escape the pain and so plant their consciousness into a human.”
“Was I grieving?”
“Not that I was aware of.”
“Nor I,” Larken added.
“What happened to them afterwards? Did they all regain their memories?” I needed to know what my own outcome would be, no matter what it was.
“The outcome was different for all although, those who were bonded with their mate had significantly better recoveries than those who had not.”
“Love,” he said with a shrug. “Pure, simple, unadulterated love. When Phoenixes mate, they mate for life and the bond between the two is unbreakable, no matter what situation either of them is in. It was that bond between us that brought you here.” Kaido’s eyes were steaming with molten lava as he studied me.
I didn’t know how much longer I could resist and I could see the strain that it was putting on Kaido as well. But it wasn’t time for that yet. I didn’t know if that time would ever come. Firstly, I had to remember.
I lifted my head in determination. “So, how do I remember?”
Larken clapped his hands, thrilled that I wanted to bring my memories back.
Kaido merely smiled, those fiery eyes never leaving mine. “Stay with me.” It wasn’t a question but it was not an order either. It was a request, one I could not possibly reject when spoken in a deep, sultry voice, husky with emotions.
Unable to speak, I nodded at him.
“This is excellent!” Larken jumped up and pulled me into his arms. “You have made me very happy. I have missed my friend but I have no doubts that Kaido will bring your memories out. He will not give up and neither will I,” he vowed.
I stood on tip toes and placed a kiss on his cheek. “Thank you, Larken. I can see why I would be friends with someone like you.”
He nodded vigorously. “I am definitely amazing,” he said with a wink and a chuckle. “I’ll leave you two to get started. Have fun!”
We said our goodbyes and then it was just me and Kaido. The tension and heat in the air was palpable.
“Lei… Eirwin, I…” Kaido faltered.
I crossed the rug to kneel in front of him. Taking his hands in mine I stared up at him imploringly. “Help me remember?”
Kaido stood and pulled me up with him. Cupping my face in his soft hands he gently kissed me. “Of course.”
The kiss made my head whirl in bliss and I laughed. “We’d better make it fast!”
Chapter Six – Time to Remember
Kaido illustriously gave me the grand tour of the castle. Every now and then, a fuzzy picture would come to mind, small things such as the two of us talking about something or a meal we had eaten in a certain room. We had lived here together for quite some time before my disappearance and it had the comfortable vibe of being a warm, happy place.
“This next room was your favourote.” Kaido led me to a large room and when we entered, my body froze.
In the back corner stood an ornate grand piano, its dusky wood gleaming as though it had been freshly polished. Around the edges of the room were tables and chairs and off to one side was a small anteroom with comfortable lounge chairs. A set of double, glass paned doors opened out onto a long balcony that overlooked a gorgeous, flower filled garden. The centre of the room was empty and obviously used for dancing. It was a ballroom.
Kaido walked up to the piano and stroked its top fondly. “You would sit and play for hours. Such beautiful music would pour forth through your fingers. It was mesmerizing.”
He sat down on the plush stool and beckoned me to join him. Warily, I did so. Was he going to ask me to play? As far as I could remember, I never played a piano in my life.
“Over the years you were gone it was both a comfort and a torment for me to come in here. Your presence was still so strong, especially when I would play.” Reverently, his long, deft fingers began pressing down on the keys and euphonic tones began to fill the room.
At first, the mood was somber. In the lachrymose notes, I could sense Kaido’s anguish at being separated from me. It was gut-wrenching and I clutched at my heart in remorse. Then, when I thought I could take no more of the agony, my hands seemed to move of their own accord and I watched in horror as they began to play, matching Kaido’s skillful tunes. I tried to stop only to find that I could not and as I continued to play, the music morphed into something more upbeat, exultant even. We played in such perfect harmony. Kaido was ecstatic. A look of amazement, wonder and pleasure painted his face and despite my reluctance, I couldn’t help but be caught up in his enthusiasm. My stomach clenched as the melody washed through me but it was not clenching in pain. For the first time in months, the music did not hurt me. Instead, the emotion welling up inside me was joy. I was so overcome that I began to cry tears of happiness. Together, we brought the song to a close and for several minutes we sat there in silence. There was really no need to speak as we could each feel the other so keenly. I could not tell where Kaido ended and I began. We were both breathing hard and almost on instinct, we reached zealously for each other. Kaido pulled me onto his lap and held me firmly against him. I snuggled into his embrace and let my tumultuous emotions run free, laughing and crying at the same time. Something magical had just happened and my poor soul was struggling to comprehend the magnificence of it.
“I don’t even know how I did that,” I cried between guffaws and sniffles. “When I started falling ill, music became unbearable for me to hear. The vibes and sentiment were too much.”
“I know. We feel our emotions on a far greater level than humans.” He gently caressed my cheek and wiped my tears. “You loved this room for another reason also.”
I froze again, knowing what he was going to say. With great difficulty, I spoke first. “Dancing?” It appeared there was no escaping my passion for dancing. Even in my other life it had been important to me.
“You would dance with such grace and elegance. I could have watched you forever. You danced for me quite often,” he informed me with a touch of cheekiness.
I scowled at him, but only in jest, giving him a playful shove.
Grinning, he jumped up off the stool and moved towards one of the walls. With a touch of his hand, a panel in the wall slid back to reveal a modern stereo. He pressed a button and music once more permeated the room. Eyes bright with anticipation, Kaido offered me his hand. “May I have this dance?”
My hands trembled. Was I ready for this? He waited patiently while I silently waged a violent, internal war. “I… I…” I stammered. The panic was rising again. I couldn’t do it. My shoulders slumped dejectedly. Yet again, I was hurting the man who been nothing but kind to me. Why couldn’t I just remember?
Kaido placed a finger under my chin and tilted my head up. His handsome face was soft with sympathy. He knew exactly what I was feeling. Hastily, he turned off the music and came to sit beside me, straddling the stool so that he could face me. “I am sorry, Eirwin. My hopes got the better of me. Forgive me?”
“Of course. It’s me who should be apologizing.” I hung my head sadly.
“Nonsense. Though perhaps, if you feel the need to make it up to me, you will allow me to take a raincheck?” His eyes sparkled impishly and I knew he was trying to cheer me.
I wished I could say yes, absolutely another time, but I could not even say that. The mere thought of dancing – especially dancing with Kaido – sent me into overdrive, though my body yearned to be held by him. I was awash with conflicting emotions. Not for the first time, I wished I could ignore them or at least control them. There had to be a way to distract myself from this torment. I wanted him yet feared to be with him, I longed to dance yet feared to dance; so many opposing emotions. I felt like I would soon split into a million pieces. Was there a way to force them into some sort of order? Was there another trigger just waiting for me to find that would be my saving grace? Kaido moved to kiss me on the cheek but I quickly turned my head so that his lips landed on mine. I needed this. I needed to feel something tangible, something I could not question. For the first time since arriving at this castle, I gave in to my lust. I wanted to be closer to him. Barely breaking the kiss, I turned to straddle the stool as he did, dragging myself closer until I could wrap my legs around him. He groaned softly as I deepened our kiss and I could taste the fervor of his lust as his hands reached for my hips, attempting to draw me closer still. My hands slipped themselves into his silky hair, my fingers running through its length. With a sigh, Kaido reluctantly pulled back.
“Leira,” he whispered. “Oh, my Leira.” His breath came is halting gasps. “You are really here.” He sounded amazed. “It can be dangerous out there for a solitary phoenix. There are humans and other creatures who will murder us on sight - behead us for our feathers.” Kaido’s distress was evident. “That is the only way we can die. I was so afraid you had been lost to me forever,” he whispered against my hair. “And although I would very much like to see where this will lead, you are not ready yet. You just needed a distraction and I do not want to take advantage of your vulnerability.”
As much as I did not want to admit it, he was right. I could never hide anything from him. It was a comfort and an inconvenience as, I wasn’t entirely sure I would have regretted it if things had progressed. With a last look at the ballroom, I took Kaido’s offered hand and we continued our tour.
For the next several days we spent every spare minute together. We would go for long walks in the forest and he would tell me of the creatures who lived there; fairies, elves, sprites and even unicorns habited this alternate Nantahala. Larken visited often, always with a new story to tell me about our misadventures yet, despite their best efforts, my memories remained fuzzy. The days turned into weeks and I began to worry that we were attempting the impossible. Kaido and I were lamenting over this while we sat relaxing on a picnic rug in the quaint little garden behind the castle, when an idea occurred to him.
“There is one thing we have not tried. I thought of it earlier but did not mention it as I was not sure you were ready. Now, I cannot think of anything else.”
“Tell me.” At this point, I was willing to try almost anything. The fuzzy memories were becoming annoying and they were giving me headaches. It was like I was trying to chase shadows. I could always see them just there in front of me but could never catch them.
“We could try to get you to shift into your Phoenix form,” he suggested.
My breath caught in my chest and I felt my stomach plummet to the ground. “Why… why would that help?” I sputtered.
“My thought is that maybe the shift will trigger not just a physical change but a psychological change also, thereby unlocking your memories.”
The idea sounded plausible; except there was one problem. “How do I make myself change?”
“Usually it is done by applying thought and willpower. Are you willing to try?”
I could see the fragile hope lingering behind his calm demeanor. This whole thing had to be hurting him and yet he never rushed or pushed me. I had to try. I owed him that much at least. I swallowed my fear and nodded.
He took my hand and kissed it. “My brave Eirwin,” he uttered with pride. “I will try to talk you through it. Close your eyes and relax.”
I did as he said and tried to block out everything but the sound of his voice as he instructed me to envision myself in my Phoenix form. Unfortunately, and perhaps ironically, I could not remember my Phoenix form. I tried to picture myself covered in the feathers I had seen begin to sprout from my skin and superimpose that onto an image of Kaido as a Phoenix. It was not enough. Growling in frustration, I opened my eyes.
“I can’t! I can’t do it. I can’t even remember myself in Phoenix form so how am I supposed to picture it.” My energy gave out and I dropped like a wilted flower in despair.
Kaido on the other hand, did not appear discouraged. “It is only your first attempt. Do not give up so easily, my love.” He tapped a long, slender finger to his chin, thinking. “You need a trigger.”
“That’s what happened the other times. It was like my body just responded automatically. I really didn’t even have time to think about anything,” I recalled drearily.
“We need a catalyst. Something strong enough to bring out the full change and, you will have to allow it to happen. If you try to block it as you did in the past, it will not work,” Kaido warned me. “Your body knows what to do. It just has to be pushed a little.”
I admired Kaido’s persistence and unwavering dedication. “What do you propose?”
“Let us see if my own change will provoke you again. Remember, do not fight it this time.” He got to his feet and, like before, Kaido was once again immersed in a burst of flames.
When it dissipated, there he was in his glorious Phoenix form. It was as enthralling as it was the first time. I reached out a hand to stroke his resplendent feathers and he made a noise deep in his throat, nuzzling into my hand. Emotions welled up inside me and I tried to let go, tried to surrender to them so that the change would find no obstacles in its way. Nothing happened. I closed my eyes, focusing on the feel of Kaido’s downy feathers beneath my hand, willing the change to come. Still nothing. I sensed Kaido shift back to his human form and before I could open my eyes I was pulled sharply into his arms. My arms twined themselves around his taut middle and my head nestled against his chest. I could hear his heart beat and I savoured the sound. Since the incident in the ballroom, we had tried to keep our distance as much as we could. We both agreed it was probably for the best until my memories returned. However, the connection between us deepened the more time we spent together and it grew harder and harder to hold onto decency. Even if we were apart, I knew exactly where he was. I could feel him there constantly, as though a piece of him was literally living inside me. It was a pleasant reassurance that I was never alone, that I would never be incomplete again, and I began to wonder how I had ever lived without it. I felt amazing and so incredibly alive. Finally, the internal wound no longer ached, the persistent chill was melted into a warm, soothing balm that pumped and flowed and pulsed through my blood. What I failed to realise, however, was that I had fallen hopelessly and inescapably in love with this man. In fact, I had loved him from the moment I first saw him. I just had not known it at the time. This sudden revelation burst violently in my heart and knocked the breath from my lungs with brutal force. I felt Kaido tense and draw in a sharp breath of his own. Pulling back, I gazed up into his face. His eyes, simpering with salacity, met mine and I could hold back no longer. With tears tracing their way down my cheeks, I wrapped my arms around his neck and kissed him hard on the mouth. There was no stopping me this time. He returned my kiss with rapacious need as I let all the love I had trapped inside me reveal itself. Both breathless, Kaido separated our lips just long enough to gently lay me down on the picnic rug. He didn’t say anything; he didn’t have to for me to know the question that he dearly wanted to ask. There was no hesitation. I knew exactly what I wanted and it was high time I got it. How much time passed, I didn’t know, nor did I care. I bared all; let my heart throw its doors wide open and held nothing back. He deserved everything I could give so I gave him everything I had. Never had I known such ecstasy or such a sweet, unrelenting and ravenous desire. It was intoxicating on the most delectable level. We fed and fed, drinking each other in until our heads spun in drunken euphoria. After, as we lay panting in each other’s arms, I said the words I knew Kaido had been yearning to hear.
“I love you.”
Tears flowed freely down his cheeks. “My precious, sweet Leir… Eirwin. I love you.”
I smiled. “Leira,” I whispered. “My name is Leira.”
In the next instant, my body was heaving. Feathers began to sprout from my skin and I cried out in both surprise and joy. Kaido stared at me, eyes wide but I wasn’t looking at him. I couldn’t even see him. Instead, I was watching image after image flash through my mind like a movie – five hundred years of memories.
“I remember!” The words were a mighty roar. Transfixed, I waited for the one memory that would explain where I had gone; the memory both Kaido and I wanted to know the most. Eventually, it came. “Ooooooh,” I breathed.
“What it is? Are you alright?”
I still could not see him, but I could feel him. His warm hands wrapped around mine as I told him what had happened; how I had been drawn to the agonizing cries of a tiny baby girl, alone and hungry in the arms of her deceased mother and how I had wanted to help her. Tears again streamed down my cheeks as I remembered that little life slipping away and how my memories had slipped away with it. Sobbing out my apologies to Kaido, I felt him kiss my hands.
“I would have expected you to do nothing different, my darling.” I could sense the pride behind his words and I beamed with pleasure.
In that moment, I realised just how much I was truly loved and my heart blossomed. As my tears turned from pain to joy, I felt my body begin to shift. I laughed in jubilation as I felt the power behind the wings – wings the same colour as my hair. I flexed, stretching them wide. They had not been used for a long time and were eager to fly. On the edges of my awareness, I sensed Kaido changing form beside me. My wings flapped impatiently, wanting to touch the sky except I still couldn’t see beyond the barrage of pictures working their way into my mind, demanding to be seen. Finally, everything became still and standing in the place where two human forms had only moments ago been lost in the throes of passion, were two striking, elegant birds. Kaido made a sound of pure contentment as he nuzzled his face to mine. Playfully, I nipped at the feathers on his neck, as I had done so many times before and took off into the heavens. I twirled and dipped, almost like I was dancing as I arched graceful patterns across the twilight sky. Soaring higher and higher, I felt the last vestiges of my wounded soul sigh in peace. It was whole once more. I was whole once more.
“Kaido, my love. Come dance with me.”
Beautiful music floated through the air. A gentle breeze rustled the leaves of the trees adding their own unique melody. It was the perfect moment. My wedding dress draped my body in brilliant, winter-white with shimmering, silver snowflakes weaving intricate patterns along the skirt and bodice, matching the snowflake tiara I wore in my hair. A sun stone blazed from its place on a white gold pendant around my neck; the colour of summer and the colour of my beloved Kaido. It was his wedding gift to me. Encircling his neck was a cord from which hung a glistening moonstone – the colour of winter and my wedding gift to him. His suit was white, trimmed with orange and he wore an orange shirt. We were Summer and Winter, together at long last. As the trees and all manner of creatures watched on – even Angie was there – Kaido stretched out his hand to me. Trembling, and with racing heart, I gently placed my hand in his. He pulled me into his arms, kissed me upon the lips and then we began to move in rhythmic, flowing motions. The tension melted away. I was dancing with my beloved for the first time as a human since my memories had returned. We had flown together several times, dancing on air, but this was different. It was in that instant that I knew I had truly returned. Life was finally complete.
My last tear
Wiped away memory
Of undiluted treachery
As I sit and watch the premier
Of the forbidden scene
Unfolding before my brown eyes
That would soon later be my demise
As I just turned nineteen
She entered my life
With her baby blue’s
Causing my heart to bruise
I still feel it in the afterlife
The next scene so taboo
I knew it was wrong to crave her
To allow my soul to stir
By then I was twenty-two
Love blossomed in a barren place
It weathered many disasters
She evolved into being my master
This is when I fell from grace
We whisper to each other in the dark
The dark is where we lay
Where we do forbidden things that betray
Things that leave exclamation marks!
The last and final scene before
She takes my soul and runs
As my heart beats like a broken drum
I was just twenty-four
The final scene closes
But the story is incomplete
My knees hit the earth in defeat
For eternity, I lie on a bed of thorned roses.
We’re born into a loveless world, a world in which we just want to be held.
Yet here we find ourselves alone, craving the one thing this world does not own.
Always we are searching for it, working for it, begging for it.
It’s so rare these days that we’re forced to take it in any way that we can get it.
Sex, drugs, violence, abuse; we tell ourselves it doesn’t matter,
that these things don’t destroy our souls or tear our guarded hearts in two.
As long as we have people who are supposed to love us,
we will break ourselves beyond repair.
Then, as we slip out of childhood innocence,
into the garments of suspicious, scheming and supposedly wiser adults,
we come to realise that, those people who are supposed to love you?
And you find yourself asking why?
Why do they not love me?
What did I do wrong?
I gave my all yet still I find myself alone.
Then you see it.
Then you know.
Love is just a fickle game of make believe and fantasy.
It’s all pretend, an endless, mindless, meaningless act;
an act we’ve become so good at, that we believe our own demising lies,
fall for our own tricks and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.
But love has left us.
We ask ourselves where it’s gone, not wanting to admit the truth;
that it’s lost and we can’t bring it back.
Funny isn’t it, how much you don’t miss something until it’s gone,
how you don’t realise what you had until you don’t have it anymore.
So where does that leave us, we poor lost souls who drift and sink?
Who try to stay afloat on an ocean that does not exist and instead, find ourselves falling;
falling into the fathomless depths of loneliness, sorrow, despair and heartbreak, hoping that
love will find us and pull us back to safety.
Now there’s the funniest irony of all because what we crave, we drove away.
We traded it in for useless junk; egoism, pride, greed and power.
If love was air, we’d all be dead.
If love was the currency, we’d all be broke.
We may be many nations, many races, many tribes and many faces but underneath it all,
we are driven by the same desire, the same yearning, the same desperate need for love.
We want to be accepted, celebrated not separated; insulated in a place where we belong,
where we are cherished and not just tolerated.
But all we do is perambulate.
We cannot even consolidate.
Instead we only obliterate, discriminate and desecrate.
Yet still there are those of us who cling to the ideal, of something we cannot believe is real,
who dream of one day knowing a love that wasn’t bought and a love we didn’t have to steal.
How can we long for what we do not know?
We’re brought up by those in denial, in a society where we’re put on trial,
and God help you if you are sentenced as weak.
Only the strong survive, but at what cost?
Today’s love is a parody, a mere shadow of what it was created to be.
Yet even so, the dreamers dream.
Who knows, maybe they will be the ones to bring love back.
Maybe they will rediscover the ruins of what we were and put us back together again.
So now the question is put to you…
Where do you stand?
Into which category do you fall?
Are you a dreamer? Or are you just another player in the game?
A cheat and a liar, in purpose and in name?
For your sake I pray, that you will join those of us who hope,
that you will come and dream with us and bring the dawn of peace, of unity, of love.
24th July 2016
the perfect aroma
as sweaty hands
labored under the
You go inside the
I see you,
tan as cappuccino
I'd say *moreno
I stand up,
order another cup
make sure I'm next
and as your men's cologne wafts
my olfactory sense aroused
I wonder with skin the color of
and eyes cappuccino
I always think of this
when I drink my favorite
cup of cappuccino
*moreno - a word derived from Spanish to denote the skin color (brown) of a male, usu. as a complement. *Morena is the same but refers to a female (with brown skin color)