A Place in the Forest, Part 9

It was already dusk when Ivan’s father beckoned him from the open doorway.  The cool blue light of evening hovered thickly just outside the house; descending the two front steps, his father was quickly immersed in it, the warm yellow of firelight draining from his head, his shoulders, last of all his feet.  Uncertainly, Ivan followed, but not without sending a questioning glance to his mother.  She was remote, unreadable, bending her head over the knife she was sharpening, but she did glance up to offer the briefest smile before Ivan stepped out into the gathering night.

His father stood a few paces away, looking out across the field that sprawled rustling between the house and the treeline.  The first stars were already appearing, the final traces of bright cyan seeping rapidly from the edge of the sky to be replaced by inky indigo and soon the velvet black of night.  Ivan hesitated.  Crickets and frogs blanketed the scene in a chorus of gentle chirps and peeps, so many individual calls that they blended into an even, regular wash of sound.  The air was warm, moving softly against Ivan’s face.  His two younger siblings were already in bed, the dinner dishes were cleared away and washed, the day’s work was done.  In every way, it was a peaceful moment.  So why did he feel so uneasy?  I don’t gather insects to feed the frogs, Mava said in his ear, her face bright and sudden in his mind.  

Realizing his father was waiting, he approached and stood beside him, directing his gaze out over the blue field to the tangled dark silhouette of the forest.  The two of them were very alike, with the same straight dark brows and spiraling curls–and especially now, each preoccupied and awkward, the weight of unspoken words growing between them until they were both quietly flustered.  Finally, his father cleared his throat.  At once the frogs nearest to them stopped singing, as if holding their breath along with Ivan to hear what the man had to say.  

“Ivan,” he said at last, “your mother and I have been talking.”

There was a long pause.  The cat padded over from one of the innumerable hiding spots she frequented throughout the day, sensing an opportunity to wind herself around somebody’s legs.  Her skinny meow was punctuated by her trotting steps, and then she pressed her small brown head firmly against Ivan’s shin and planted her four feet resolutely in the grass.  He knew she would wait there until he bent to pet her or else walked away.  Slowly, not wishing for his father to feel disrespected but also unable to resist, Ivan began to bend at the knees and sink toward the ground, extending the fingers of his right hand toward the cat, who immediately upturned her face and rose onto her hind legs to meet his touch.  For some reason it brought a pang of tenderness in his chest, a feeling of heartbreak.  Ivan frowned.  

“You’ve not been yourself lately,” his father said brusquely, suddenly. “Your mother, she’s worried for you.” Ivan blinked, turning his attention from the cat and looking at the side of his father’s face he could see.  In the fading blue light he seemed younger, the lines of years less evident, softened; yet his brow furrowed even harder, as if by staring intensely enough into the middle distance he could discern the words he needed to speak to his son. “We’re both a bit worried, to tell the truth,” he added.  He glanced sideways and noticed Ivan’s keen scrutiny, and his shoulders lifted in a small, ambiguous shrug.  He seemed almost apologetic and yet accusatory, seeming to communicate regret for the awkwardness of the encounter while simultaneously blaming Ivan for making it necessary. “You’ve been absent,” his father said.

Ivan became aware in the ensuing silence that some kind of explanation was expected of him, though none had been asked for.  He turned his father’s words over in his mind: had he not been himself?  Was such a thing even possible, he wondered.  If not himself, what else could he be?  Unbidden,the memory of Mava and her people speaking as one came to him, filling him with unease.  Had she not been herself then?  Or was it the other times, when they had been alone in the grove, when she had seemed to be just one, and only for him…was it then that she had been false?  Ivan felt sick, thoughts racing.  He realized his father had said something and he hadn’t quite heard.

“What?” he asked, trying to shake her off, send her back to the forest.

“I said, is it a girl?” his father asked.

This was a bit much.  Ivan knew there was love between him and his father, but these kinds of confidences were unfamiliar to the point of anxiety.  Besides, how could he answer when he didn’t know the truth himself?  After all, what was she?

“What’s the trouble with the lass?” his father inquired after several endless heartbeats, interpreting Ivan’s uncomfortable silence as affirmation. “She doesn’t want you, is that it?”

“It’s…it’s not that, so much,” Ivan began haltingly.  He struggled to organize his thoughts as the crickets obligingly filled the space between them. “It’s that she’s…well, I–I made her a promise, and now I’m not sure I can keep it.”

“Is she pregnant?” his father asked grimly.

“What? No!” Ivan cried indignantly, face crimson with embarrassment. “No,” he repeated vehemently. “It’s nothing like that.”

His father sighed with obvious relief and clapped a reassuring hand on Ivan’s shoulder. “Well son,” he said in a lighter tone, “You’re a man of your word, sure enough.  I see that it’s paining you, but love has different rules than other parts of life.  Sometimes it takes breaking our bond to stay true to ourselves.  If I can advise you, I’d suggest not taking it too much to heart; you’re young, and free, and both you and she are bound to find other loves, though it may hurt a fair bit in the meantime.”

It was the most candid and intimate his father had ever been, and in that moment Ivan wished passionately he could tell him the whole truth and ask his advice.  For one wild instant, he was just a breath away from doing so.  But he held himself back, sensing that as out of his depth as he felt with Mava, his father would be ten times more so.  Ivan had already run away from her: what could he expect his father to caution, except that he remain away?  And if Ivan didn’t want to hear that, what did he want?  He felt again the pang of heartbreak.

Satisfied that he had fulfilled his paternal duty, his father turned back to the house leaving Ivan with his thoughts.  Ivan let his legs fold under him and sat in the grass, the cat immediately installing herself in his lap and butting her jaw against his face.  He remembered Mava’s three eyes looking up at him as her head rested against his shoulder, the way he felt himself become more than his body, the way they sifted into each other.  How warm, how alive, how fearless he had felt.  For a moment he felt it all again, rushing through him like her star of light, making him whole, taking him home.

And then it slipped away, and he was aware of being alone as he never had been before.

By queenofelves

Writer, artist, and magic-user. Lover of fantasy and romantic poetry. Always exploring!


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