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One and Only

Updated: May 12, 2023

A Dryad stirs within her tree. She sniffs the air and knows the humans are walking near. The grotto light stirs as they enter awash with the scent of falling dreams. She and her trees will catch them, soothe them and hold them still so that they can know the futility of their shallow desires. Show them the middle path out of despair. The one that is lit by the moon.

They sigh a song of peace at last. She curls back up in her hollow. The leaves rustle softly all is well with the world.

MA, the oldest, the wisest of this mob of dryad wood nymphs, called me over with clicks of her tongue through sharp pointed teeth.

‘Crow! It’s been long enough.'

A few bits of moss stuck between each tooth but I could spy with my little eye that this was not a good time to mention it.

‘Go fetch Mica. Bring her home.’ She whistled at me, frown lines in her craggy face deepening momentarily.

She turned with a flurry, limbered up the trunk of her ancient yew tree and disappeared into the cocoon, slamming its lid.

Mica, a young and dreamy dryad had been up to mischief. We all saw it coming after she locked eyes with that lost boy a week ago. We heard her whisper to one of the rocks at the stone circle gathering up on the high moor.

‘I will miss you rock when I go to find my one and only.’

The rock hummed back through its scaly rough skin. ‘No need to go anywhere to find that.’

But I saw her skip off up the deer trod path that lead to the moor as the other nymphs returned to the grotto at dusk.

The mob watched me intently after Ma gave me her orders. I felt a bit peeved. I’m one of a long line of noble crows not to be ordered around like a dog. So after a bit of hopping around trying to be casual, eventually, I got off my high horse, pumped the wind under my shiny black wing feathers and set off in a very straight line to the village by the sea where I knew she was headed.

As only our kind know how.

We knew too! Hazel, Oak, Holly, Silver Birch and a couple of Yew sang out in chorus. But Crow was well gone. We knew it and tried to tell MA. We pulsed and we murmured it forth, but it got lost on the wind as most of our secrets do these days. We remember the night the boy came because it hasn’t happened for the longest time. The threads underground to our roots had sung out of pressure. Of footfall distant but approaching in the driving rain. The rocks hummed out. Not in alarm. Just a hint of human they said. We felt the need to raise our beloveds. Our nymphs. Cozy and resting in their burrows deep in the heart of our bodies. They stirred quickly and gathered, looking down from the high branches into the grove as a young human man wet and weary plopped himself down on a soft mossy bank and leant against our bow. They clicked and sucked up the air between their pointed teeth in excitement.

Ma arrived a second or two late.

‘Shhhh’ she growled. ‘Mind your eyes.’

We knew their rules. The Laws they lived by that MA taught them sitting around the smokeless fire whispering stories of old when the gods roamed this place. They couldn’t look a human in the eye. Well, they could but it meant trouble. What trouble we don’t know but Ma had seen the trouble before and she certainly didn’t want it again.

‘Off you go now all of you.’ she whispered.

And they did. Back to us, back to their dens deep within us. All except Mica.

We felt her hope, we knew her dreams and as she watched the young man slip into a soft sleep, she crept closer. So close that she could feel the rosy warmth of his shallow breath on her cheek. She could smell his milky odor, the promise of his heart. We swayed and shuffled and summoned the wind, but nothing would catch her look away. Then dawn arrived in a flush of green-light and the young man stirred suddenly opening his eyes Mica’s face almost touching his.

We saw it. They locked eyes for a moment in forbidden sight. He rubbed his eyes with his fists, and she must have sensed the pressure of us all cry out No, NO! and snapped out of her trance slipping behind the She-Oak, out of sight in a flash. The human jumped up and looked around him turning and turning. Eyes wide, head spinning wildly. He stumbled and fell. We gently shuffled him up and ushered him slowly past the tinkling stream and out to the edge of the grotto. The rain had stopped and even in delirium the pressure of his foot fall soon faded into the day.

Mica wrapped her arms around her chest and clenched it tight. Her heart seemed to grow out of her chest and pumped like the sound of thunder. There was no sleep for her in the cosy cocoon that night. She had met her heart’s desire and even though her tree crooned and soothed, her thoughts followed the fading image of the lost boy’s face in the light of the moon.

Next morning she’d bathed her tawny hair in the bottomless pool and ate her fill of the moist fresh moss and crunchy lichen. She listened to the mob, mainly Pia, Nora, Raffety and Pan who chatted about everything and nothing but mostly the lost boy. The young nymphs had never seen a human before that night but they said not a word about Mica and her encounter so she thought no-one knew. Ma had scowled at her over the mushroom patch and again when they got out the treasures. Things left by the humans; A blue and white China teapot, a blue glass jar, a polished pure white rock, a purple woolen hat and a carved stick with a duck head handle that the nymphs liked to hold and wonder over. The objects were getting old and worn as no humans had come to the grotto, embedded in a deep hollow, high up at the top of the moor, for a very long time.

Mica had no interest anymore. Not now when she’d met her one and only. She hatched her plan to go in search of him, knowing from Ma’s stories that he was bound to live in a village by a shimmering sea. Planning to leave the grotto was not hard for Mica because Dryads can go as they please. And normally they please not to leave the grove. Their trees, their mob, their MA. That night Mica paid it no second thought. When she had seen her dryad sisters all drop into their cocoons in the fading light she turned back and found a deer trod path that lead up from the tinkling stream out of the hollow, onto the moor, off and away to the back of beyond. Which was actually quite far but at least it was downhill all the way. Not hurrying, smelling the fresh air of the open moor, she followed the deer trods away from the only life and loves she had ever known. Leaving her tree had wrenched her heart but the call from her one and only inside her head had reached fever pitch. From the deer trods she found the sheep-ways that lead to the place where the heather and gorse, bracken and brambles tumbled down in swathes to the edge of a very long, as far as the eye could see both ways, dry stone wall. From there it was all green upon green with white fat sheep and buttercups in the millions. The earthen tracks became solid crisscross pathways that ran along the top of a cliff towering over a shallow shimmering sea. As she skipped along, she saw a fair share of humans and although they couldn’t see her, they could feel her bursting heart as she passed. So, for no reason they would chuckle to themselves feeling good about nothing in particular. Mica followed her nose. The smell of milk and honey. Of smoky sweat and salty heat. She barely gave the vast ocean a second glance. She didn’t stop for one moment. One of only a few of her kind to see the horizon line at the back of the shimmering sea. But she just skipped on deep in her own thoughts. Deep in the longing to linger again in front of the face framed by licks of jet-black hair. Lost in his soulful dark eyes. Despite the ravishing sun scolding her skin she skipped along caring only for her boy.

I rose quickly on warm air spawned by the midday sun as it hit the canopy and radiated up and over the vast moor covered plateau. The emerald hollow disappearing to a pin head as I took a dive over the edge down towards the grassy pastures and the shimmering sea. It had been quite a while since Mica left. A few days maybe. I could see no sight or sound of her. And how exactly was I going to get her back anyway. MA. Give up your dream missy dryad. Its better up there. Alone with the sisterhood. Really? I’ve been many places and in comparison, there’s not a lot to do in the grotto. Well, there used to be but it’s a bit barren without the centaurs.

The village lay on a big slab of bedrock that had thrust its way up from the seabed eons ago. Its sentinel cliffs plunging vertically shear into the briny blue water below. All the houses were built of the same rock. Its speckles of quartz glistening like permanent dew. Mostly sleepy, often asleep, life came and went, moods lifted and lowered with arrivals and departures of the vessels into the port at the bottom of the cliffs. A stone staircase hewn into the rock the only connection between the two. Plus a few donkeys.

Mica had arrived in the village a few days before and now she was getting cross.

She knew he was here. It was the only human settlement this side of the shimmering sea. She’d started to think the village people were hiding him from her. She remembered the moment they locked eyes. The rush of tingling straight into her heart that had taken her breath away.

A few of the villagers could sense her presence and there was an unease in the air. It had happened before. Some of the old folk could remember. Especially Tilly Buck. She knew mischief had come to town. Granny Buck as she was fondly known by the villagers had always been seen as wise beyond her years and now, she was older she kept herself to herself preferring to grow her herbs and make her potions in a hut on a small patch of woodland. She walked there daily, slightly stooped but lightly bouncing, to the edge of the village, past the dry-stone wall and into the wood. People never went to disturb her there, but she always had a salve or a tincture at the ready for their aches and pains in a blue glass jar. Now she was pretty sure mischief had arrived in the village. She saw the signs. Ida White had her washing removed from her own line and dumped in a neighbor’s backyard 4 doors down trails of lichen scattered over the lawn. Mrs. Peak the baker, had her skirts hiked up in front of a shop full of villagers showing her knickers. People were starting to walk with a slightly quicker pace about the place.

Old Jack had come up to her in the street.

‘Mischief is around Tilly. I feel it. Do you think it’s one of them their magic folk. Keep hearing clicks and whistles in the night I do…and taps on the window.’ he said glancing up and about furtively.

Jack was a 50/50 like Tilly but he didn’t have the sight. They were the last of their kind if she had anything to do with it. More than half human but with enough nymph to add a bit of spice to the senses. But that was all kept firmly under a hat. Tilly like to wear a purple woolen one against the winds that blew up the cliff and through the village in cool blasts that would catch their breath and ruffle their hair.

‘Don’t put no more thought into it Jack. It’ll pass. None of them left by now. Broke up from their kind when the sea rise cut off our place from the mainland.' Granny waved herself on, striding out towards the top of the stairs that lead to the port.

Her grandson Thomas had returned from fetching the escaped sheep off the moor in a right old state. Saying stuff about green eyes and pointed teeth in the woods at the top of the moor. She knew then that there would be a visit just as there had been for her father years ago with herself left in a basket 9 months later, on the steps of the seamen’s mission. He’d told her the tale of his encounter with a tree nymph called Petra just before he died. People in the village were a bit wary because he reached the ripe old age of 243. It had finally explained hushed voices and clicking sounds in the night when she was a child. Trips up to wood at the top of the moor when she was so young she could barely remember. How she could hear and see things other people couldn’t.

Not on my watch she mumbled to herself as she carried a bucket of sea water up the steps all the way up from the port to the back door of the house she shared with Thomas and his mother placing it carefully next to the mop.

Thomas, young buck, bronzed and jaunty nodded with a smile to anyone who caught his eye as he wandered aimlessly down the village high street. Not much of that today he thought as people scurried by. He hummed a tune and broke into a song he heard being sung by the sailors in the tavern by the port. ‘Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.' It was a goodun. He never went in, just hung about outside ready to catch stories of life in shiny bright cities over the horizon. He daydreamed of hopping aboard a vessel and catching himself a red lipped whirlwind lover on some distant shore.

He’d recovered from his fright. Thankfully nobody but Granny Buck had seen him get back to the village shaking like a leaf, white as a ghost. Sweating and frigidly cold at the same time. Rambling on about a face with green eyes and pointed teeth in the wood. It now felt like a distant dream. Granny Buck had washed him off in warm seawater which was a bit strange. Given him hot milk with some sweet weird tasting spice. Rubbed an ointment in between his eyebrows and wrapped him a special blanket that he’d never seen before that was as soft as a duck’s down feather. He’d fallen fast asleep and dreamt of green skinned people arriving on a boat in the night and stealing all the honey. When he awoke, he couldn’t really remember what had happened. Granny Buck said that the storm had got into his brain and made him coo-coo. That and missing his lunch. She said there was no wood on the moor just a couple of old knarly trees that he must have mistaken as more than they were in the storm.

Thomas thought about how strange life could be here in this isolated town. Sometimes he thought he could hear people talk but they didn’t move their lips or utter a sound. Sometimes he thought he could see a shimmer around people’s head. Some of the old folk. Tilly Buck, his Grandmother in particular. But as he sauntered down the street in the fading afternoon sun, he gave no more thought to it. Life was good. He’d survived an ordeal. Not many of his contemporaries could say that. Not many ordeals occurred very often in this town, to be survived.

Thomas peaked over the school wall to catch a glimpse of the new young pretty teacher and watch her pack up her classroom after the last class. Not normally shy he’d yet to pluck up courage to say hello. Start a casual conversation. That might lead to other things. He’d positioned himself along the route he knew she took to and from the school most days. Until Granny Buck told him to stop stalking her. As the afternoon started to fade he leant against the school wall willing her to turn his way.

Which was where Mica saw him caste gold in the last rays of the day. She gasped and jumped to a halt. Her one and only was there before her eyes. As splendid as she remembered. As buff as the gods of old. She clicked her teeth and licked her lips and stood as still as her tremoring body would allow.

Thomas eventually tore his gaze away from the teacher vowing to make a move the next day as parents arrived for their evening teacher talk. The light dimmed enough that the first evening star popped out as if in a rush to twinkle it's light down on the remote village. He yawned as he walked off, back to the home he shared with his mother and Granny Buck. He felt the dulcet creep of a nap arriving as he opened the back door into the warm cozy kitchen. A glass of milk and a biscuit had been left for him on the side. A habit his mother had refused to drop even as her son reached manhood. He took a bite and a slurp. He yawned again. Recovering from an ordeal was a tough business. The couch beckoned and it was as he turned, he saw her framed in the doorway. Flame straggly hair dripping lichen, luminous pale green eyes, skin the color of the fading sky, pointy teeth visible through a flat line mouth. Steam rose from her light linen shift and the smell of damp loam wafted up his nostrils as they faced each other stock still. Thomas started to pant. Sweat broke out on his upper lip and he blinked his eyes rapidly not wanting to move any other part of his body. Mica clicked and smiled but unfortunately Thomas saw it as a menacing grimace and started to scream. High pitched and hysterical. The urgency rising with volume as Mica walked towards him with outstretched arms. His eyes darted about in terror. His caste body started to twitch and instinctively he crouched down but in the same instant jumped up and stepped back into a chair which tipped over spilling him sprawling towards the corner of the kitchen. Mica could plainly see something was wrong. Thomas was huddled in a ball facing the corner. His head braced on his knee’s arms over his head. He was wailing now in a pulsing foghorn type of way.

‘Hey one and only I’m here to fetch you. Sorry took a bit longer than I thought.’

She stepped over to touch his hair.

‘Don’t please NOOOOOO. Help me. Someone.’ Thomas whimpered

He doesn’t remember me. She could feel a stone sink from her throat to her stomach.

But he can see me when all the other humans cannot. He must be one of us. She hopped from one foot to the other trying to decide what to do. He would come round with a bit of talking and she would lead him back to the grotto to be welcomed by Ma and the mob. Nevertheless, gazing down at Thomas rocking back and forth, her heart missed a beat or two and her breath seemed stuck in her chest.

At that point Granny Buck came racing through the door with the small pail of seawater in her left hand and a mop in her right. She flicked a splash of it over towards Mica.

‘Get out of my house. Go shoo.’

Mica frowned and gnashed her teeth, the skin where the seawater landed stinging and turning pink.

‘I can see you young nymph and I can guess what happened in the grotto on the high moor when my Thomas got lost in the storm.’

Granny Buck seemed to have grown in stature her chest puffed up and she held her mop up like a battering ram. Staring the nymph down, eye to eye.

You’ve been trouble ever since you came. You’re not welcome here. Thomas is not for your kind.’ Granny Buck shuffled herself around between her grandson and Mica.

‘I’m here to fetch my one and only.’ She clicked softly, a look of uncertainty crossing her face.

Granny Buck laughed looking down at her whimpering grandson under her legs then up at Mica who was obviously a young nymph and not yet schooled by her MA in the wise ways of her kind. Of which Tilly Buck knew enough to realise that if she didn't handle the situation before her well things could go badly wrong. An angry dryad using her full power is a sight to behold. She momentarily relaxed her demeanour and offered the confused and frowning nymph a smile.

‘Can’t you see he’s not for you. You have no idea of human ways. He might have the sight and he might of cast his eyes into yours in the grotto but that doesn’t mean you can come barging in and scare the wits out of him. Now shoo. Time you went back up the hill…and stay there.’

Time stood still for what seemed like a whole night. Thomas continued to rock and the dryad coming to her senses went to reach for her one and only.

Granny Buck could see the love lorn nymph was not to be dissuaded by the words of an old human 50/50. She lunged at Mica with the seawater-soaked mop and it caught her arms and chest. It burned her already sun blistered skin and seared her dry and flaky nostrils. She backed away from Thomas not taking her eyes off him, stumbling out of the door and up the empty street. Suddenly and blindly Lost. This wasn’t the plan of her heart. Mica walked, barely upright, her nimble trot gone, despair caught in her throat, her breath in gasps. She dragged herself out of the village and up to the drystone wall. Head thrown back, wailing into the night a sharp piercing cry that had the villagers toss restlessly in their beds and the sheep bolting for the corner of their field. She had realized her boy and his love had lived only in her head.

Granny buck had felt a bit guilty hurting the angry little nymph, but she wanted to teach her enough of a lesson that she didn’t come back. Ever. She had slammed the door behind her in good riddance. She rushed over to Thomas, pulled him up onto a chair and slapped him hard on both cheeks.

‘Come on my boy. Best you come to the couch. I’ll get you some milk and honey and wrap you up for bed.’

She grabbed her ointment and blanket and bundled him up on the sofa in front of the cooking fire without speaking. The time had come. She’d hope to avoid it but now there was no getting around it. The conversation had to be had. The sight had completely missed a generation but was back and bright in Thomas. The truth of the family’s past needed to be told. That its blood ran red but with a slight hint of green.

Thomas slept all that night and half of the following day until Tilly Buck 50/50 raised him with a stiff cup of black tea. She put the lamb sausages she’d been keeping for an occasion such as this on a special blue and white China plate. Where to start. She ushered him outside and sat him down half noticing a crow land on the roof of the outside loo but paid it no other thought. She started at the beginning in a time before a time before a time in a wood on a moor with no shimmering sea in sight just a vast plain connecting two high plateaus.

I flew into the village at first light having napped in a low gorse bush on the edge of the village wall. I flew about a bit. Hopped here and there. Dive bombed down the cliff face to the port which was a buzz. Scanned about. Nothing to see there. Caught a ride back up on a donkey pecked away at a line of fresh fish until I got shood off. I flew from house to house dawdling about for as long as I could trying to catch the hushed conversations. I heard about the mischief and what a tumbledown week it had been for the humans. UH oh. There was talk of wailing in the night. Of screams of howls coming from the eastside of the village. I flew over in that direction circling and circling until I found them in the back yard of a small house sitting at a table in the afternoon sun. An old woman talking to a young man who I guessed must have been the one that stumbled into the grove on that fateful night. He had a haunted look about him and barely took his eyes off the hands fidgeting on his lap.

‘What now brown cow’ I said to no one in particular.

As I listened, I realized that unlike other times along time ago, there would be no patter of tiny dryad feet living happily ever after in the grotto. Poor sweet Mica broken hearted and nowhere to be found. ‘Oh heck,’ I cawed as I felt the color drain from my feathers. Tits and finches I screeched to the wind as I took flight retracing my wing beats. Where was she headed? There was really nowhere else for her to go but back to the grotto.

I flew and flew and at last I spotted her wrapped around a rock her red and white skin a beacon on the brown earth. Maybe I was too late. It was a rock on the edge of the stone circle which was just beyond the edge of the grove. She had almost made it home. From there I flew in a line, as only our kind know how, straight to MA hoping she wouldn’t have my guts for garters not that old dryads wear stockings these days.

The pain of the seawater burns on her skin stamped a branding deep on her heart. She had made it to the moor by way of the milky moonlight and had stopped wailing as dawn broke lilac over the heather ahead. Her shame and regret had made her blind and deaf and numb. She could not return. She could not stand with her mob and her tree after what she had done. She dragged her heavy legs on, consumed by the fading image of her one and only coiled up in terror against her. The energy of desire that sustained her spark was gone. She fell to her knees and crawled along a deer trod path until the way was blocked by a big boulder that hummed a greeting. ‘Ah there you are’ it said.

She curled herself around it and using the last of her strength to send a lament up to the morning star just hovering in the pink dawn light.

‘My beloved she-oak forgive me. I am lost without your den, your sap, your song. My darling ferns by the tinkling laughing brook. Our bottomless pool my source, my drink, my cool. Forgive me. Sisters, sisters, she sobbed, I long to chase the catkins and intertwine your fingers beside the smokeless fire before bed. Oh MA forgive me that I have touched the world of men.’

The lament stopped and the silence that dropped on the moor was deeper than a starless patch of night sky.

As crow entered the grotto and headed straight for MA the mob lifted their head to the breeze as they heard the lament it carried from their lost one. The trees sighed. We knew, we tried.

The Dryad mob unwound her body from its tight embrace of the rock and carried her gently on a cloak made of the finest flax thread. Down the deer trod path, past the brook that paused its tinkling and the bottomless pool that rippled its sorrow. The grotto trees swayed side to side as the mob lifted her up carefully into the She-Oak bows. They placed her lovingly into its cocoon, beseeching the tree to cleanse out the shadows and the sorrows that burdened their young broken sister. Quietly they closed the lid and dropped down to the base of the trunk where they leaned back into the trunk shoulder to shoulder, hands clasped woven together singing a song of lost and found and what is gained in the loosing. They sang of sorrow for times gone by but hope for more life to be lived amongst them. They stayed all night as the she-oak summoned her stand, drew up the tonics through underground threads up to her roots. Into the sap, flooding the cocoon with as much goodness as she could muster. The dryad mob and their trees circled her well into the morning light in a compress of love.

Ma sucked on her long clay pipe rocking in time with the tinkling brook. The mob were about their business, the smell of the smokeless fire offering comfort during these days of waiting.

Then as if nothing significant had happened, like it was a normal day, in a normal moon cycle a head poked up out of the cocoon skin glistening a dappled green under the leaf light.

Ah There she is. MA hid her relief but the whole grove of dryads, animals and plants alike sighed a deep sigh of release…and sank back into the peace that restored order of things brings.

Healed on the outside and maybe under the skin but likely as not the scar that dents her heart will be there for good. MA thought to herself.

The mob lifted their heads in unison. There will be no words spoken of it all. They wave, a cacophony of clicks and whistles lifting the leaves high up in the canopy. Chattering gayly they beckon to Mica who hops down from the she-oak sensing the dew between her toes, smelling the moss soup bubbling away on the fire and slightly sheepishly she idles over to the mob and asks

‘Ma can we see the treasures later.’ The mob falls silent and all eyes fix on MA. Who squints up through draping eyelids.

‘After you’ve tended to the mushroom patch my girl’.

The difference was MA managed the hint of a smile. Everyone saw it. The trees, the rocks, the mob and crow. All was well with the world.

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