When Raine went kicking through the flower beds of the forest, Paylee knew their mother had returned from the village with a heaping basket still brimming with pungent, dried herbs and weeds. He wondered what she offered the people this time. Wartberry Fairvbell? Arrowhead Groundsel? Yellow Skullcap? She could offer them the Fountain of Youth, and they still wouldn’t forgive her, wouldn’t ever trust in her medicine again. Once a death, always another.
Raine’s blind insistence to think things would ever change, as if the village would one day forgive them, wore Paylee down. Raine seemed to live in a world constructed of his own wants and needs, and Paylee suspected another reason for why he ushered mother to the village week after week.
“Raine, cut it out!” Paylee yelled. He picked up the flowered faces of the Wood Nymphs and tried to prop them back upright, but they drooped back down again, so he plucked them carefully from the soil and walked through the woods to the stone garden. There, the trees circled a smooth bend in the river. Their whispers echoed off granite and bark. Mother said it was the ancient ones sharing wisdom and foresight, thinly disguised in the ruffle of branches, the trickling of the river, and the moan of trunks swaying in the soft loam of the river bed. She said, one day, Paylee would hear them too. He’s tried, has held a rock wheel like the one she uses to commune, a branch twisted and fastened into a fist-sized circle with rocks suspended between the lacing of twine, but so far, his ears remain deaf to their tongue.
Paylee dropped the Nymph’s heads in at the river’s edge. Glassy, cloud-reflected water swirled them downstream like spinning snowflakes. He wanted to spin along with them, travel to his own world far from the woods, maybe to a desert or rolling grassy plains. Any place but the cold, wet woods they lived in now.
Rocks clapped behind Paylee. He turned to find Raine holding a fistful of smoothed, flat rocks. One of them zipped from his hand across the stone garden and into the river, two, three, five skips that chased after the Wood Nymph’s heads.
“What are you doing, Raine?”
Paylee hadn’t meant it as a question. He already knew why Raine had come, to show off and taunt him. His 7-year-old hands lacked Raine’s 17-year-old strength and dexterity, and his brother reminded him of it often.
Raine skipped another rock, this one bouncing six times before cracking against a rock on the other side of the river, dead center in a circle he’d scratched out using the sharp tip of another rock. He grinned at Paylee, a smile too much like those of the guards at the village gate.
“Why do you keep sending mother to the village?” Paylee tossed a small stone at the river, but it only plunked with a one-drop splash six feet out. “You know they’ll never take us back.”
Raine picked up a large flat stone, one that fit comfortably in his palm. “To try is not to fail, Paylee. To stop trying is to fail. I do not force mother to go. The choice is hers and hers alone.” His muscles flexed across his back and arms as he skipped the rock upriver, into the current. It bounced leaving behind four giant rippled rings the size of a tall fir. He swayed around to face Paylee. “A choice that you are soon going to have to make too, little brother.”
Raine had never called him little brother. It occurred to Paylee then that he was making a point, not to state the obvious, but ever so slightly to challenge him. A glimmer sparked in Raine’s eye, a flame ready to leap higher.
The next morning, mother went out to talk to the trees. She told Paylee the ancient ones said change was on the horizon. Paylee didn’t need divine insight to gather that, but she also said a storm was coming, and with it, there would be irreversible outcomes.
Paylee didn’t want to think about the future; it was only filled with uncertainty, and his past was more or less a vague memory of moving from mountain side to cave and mountain side again.
Today, though, in the stone garden, a nice cool breeze blew in from the North. Paylee sat silent and focused like a peregrine. He cleared his mind to the present, and deepened his breath into the now. In his hand, he held onto his own rock wheel, twine twisted and pulled taught around small rocks in a web pattern between a bent, rounded branch. When the wind blew, the rocks were supposed to vibrate, a sign of the ancients ready to commune. Paylee’s didn’t work so well. The rocks kept slipping loose of the twine or they sagged against it. Maybe that was the reason he hadn’t heard their whispers, he thought. Either that, or mother was wrong, and he wasn’t seer.
In the distance, across the river, Paylee overheard voices. He ducked around fir branches then stopped abruptly at the site of Raine with a girl dressed in village clothes, tapered, bright linens that formed to her figure. Paylee’s heartbeat quickened, his fists clenched, and sweat dampened his face as he watched Raine pick her a small bouquet of flowers and tuck them into her hair.
Who was she? Paylee thought she looked like a princess, a lithe frame that moved as graceful as the Nymphs. He saw excitement beaming in Raine’s smile, maybe it was happiness, but whatever it was, he’d never shared it with Paylee or their mother.
A sweep of anxiety flushed breath from Paylee’s lungs as suspicion filtered into his thoughts. Raine planned to make his passage back into the village through the likes of the girl. Paylee peered at them closer and realized for the first time that Raine was almost a man. The village would take him in, no matter that he was the child of a witch and seer. He was handsome, muscular, and knew the land better than anyone. Unlike Paylee and their mother, the village needed him.
But so did they.
Tears breached Paylee’s brutish fight to swallow them back, and he ran from the stone garden all the way back home.
Raine was a traitor, Paylee decided. He’d be willing to bet his flint stone that the ancient ones thought so too. Without Raine, survival would be no less than a harrowing, strenuous ordeal for him and his mother. Raine had protected them, hunted food, built and fixed their shelters, and near everything else since their exile from the village. Paylee was learning the ways, but not fast enough. He still depended on Raine daily.
Moreover, mother’s frailty worsened each day. Something black grew inside of her, sucked the color from her cheeks and the fat off her bones. She couldn’t do much beyond cooking and mixing medicinal treatments. Paylee knew Raine had given them everything, but they were family, and that’s what families do. Maybe, in the end, it had been too much for Raine.
Paylee brooded. That stupid girl. Maybe she had that buttercup hair and fern-green eyes, but she couldn’t fathom the consequences pressing down on them. She was selfish like the other villagers. They cared nothing about the ancient ones, cared nothing for a mother and her young children. For Raine to return to them after what they did drove a crowd of voices into Paylee’s head, none of which he suspected had come from the whispering woods.
Paylee watched them from afar again and grew angrier still. He threw a rock at the river—hoping to skip it ashore somewhere in their vicinity—and ducked behind a large boulder. It didn’t make it across the river, but it did skip three times and sent a spray of water their direction. At that small spark of satisfaction, he headed for home through the forest, fighting back another bout of hot emotions that had expanded from somewhere deep and up into his throat.
Halfway there, he stopped to meditate, desperate to hear the ancient ones, but still, they refused him tongue. Before entering the cabin he bit down on his lip. Mother did not need to know about the village girl, though Paylee suspected the ancients had told her already.
Inside, Paylee set the rug with two bowls and two spoons only. Mother sat down across from him and ladled broth into his bowl. At his silence, she spoke.
“You still haven’t heard the ancient ones.”
“Raine is spending time at the village. He’s met a girl.” It blurted from Paylee like scorching red lava.
Mother suspended scooping the stew as though momentarily frozen. “Raine has his own choices to make.” She resumed serving.
“But he will leave us. What will we do?”
“Do not cross bridges you have not yet arrived at, Paylee.” She placed the pot on the kiln and sat back down on the floor.
“He’s not a chosen one, is he?” Paylee asked.
“For other things. In a sense, we are all chosen for something. It’s a matter of owning our destiny, traversing our fate. You’ll understand in time, my son.” Curls of steam wafted up from her spoon. “Now, no more talk. Tend to your eating and remember to be thankful.”
The next morning, Paylee woke to the cold breath of dawn on his shoulders. He stoked the fire, covered his mother with a blanket, and went outside. He headed to the stone garden, and after ten handfuls of rocks, he could skip them four times consecutively, almost as good as Raine. The last one hit the painted boulder across the river, a thumb’s length from the bull’s-eye before it split into two halves. What Raine can do, I will do better, he thought to himself.
At the peak of a waxing moon, the sound of skipping stones rolled through a clouded sky. The smell of charred wood soaked the air. Mother stirred with a fever that herb and weed couldn’t lessen. She tossed and turned on her mat with dampness on her brow and heat at her cheeks. Her eyes fogged over with a cloudy fluid much like plant milk that crusted along her eyelashes.
She grabbed Paylee’s arm as though falling. “Paylee!” she said. “Go to the stone garden. Go listen to the whispering woods. The ancient ones are calling for you. You must hurry!”
“I will not leave you, not like this,” Paylee cried. He smeared tears down his cheek with his palm and took a deep breath. “I’m not Raine. You’ll never be alone.”
“Paylee, my son. It is I who will leave you. Go, you must hear the ancient ones.” With trembling fingers, she put her rock wheel in his hand. The lacing in the middle was bound sturdy to the circular branch and the rocks still inside.
Paylee kissed her on the forehead and ran to the stone garden. A bulbous moon blinked between the swift glide of pewter-glazed clouds. Raine and his princess were long gone, probably walking the cobbled streets of the village and eating warm, spiced meat from bone, unaware of his mother’s growing illness.
The sacred circle of whispering woods towered around Paylee like a dark council of revenants. He sat on his favorite boulder with his mother’s wheel in his hand, focusing, listening, keen to hear the ancient ones speak to him, to tell him what to do.
He tried, but only the delicate whistle of the wind responded. He felt small, like he did in his dreams. A little brother. Feeble. Inadequate. Naïve. Raine knew it, and the ancient ones did too.
Paylee scooped up a handful of rocks and chucked one, two, three, as hard as he could. They skidded, plunked, and splashed into the black glass of the river.
“What do you want of me?” Paylee yelled. Warm tears spilled down his cheeks. He wiped at them in outrage.
The tree branches shook and scraped their limbs together. He stared down at the wheel of rocks, beheld the tight oscillations, but it wasn’t enough, so he raised it high into the air and aimed it in the direction of the river. He would throw it in if the ancient ones didn’t speak to him. He would toss it so hard, maybe his hand wouldn’t let go and he would drown instead, or let the river take him to a place far, far away.
Before further thought, before his arm flexed back gaining strength for his hardest throw yet, a murmuring breeze whirled in and froze Paylee still. He heard voices… the whispering woods. A burst of joy gripped him and he gasped out. The rocks in the rock wheel vibrated between the twine like a plucked guitar string. At that moment, he not only heard the ancient ones, but he felt them too, the deep pull of the Divine.
“Paylee, stop! Do not fear ,” the voices said.
More than one voice spoke, one achingly familiar. “Mother?”
Paylee looked up and around, but saw only clouds and the tarnished glow of the moon behind them. As much as he tried to force the thought out of his mind because of what it meant, he couldn’t. The elation he’d had a moment ago soured into hot tears and caught in his throat like a giant knot until he screamed it out. He knew what hearing his mother speak to him in such a manner meant, what had happened to her after he’d left. She was with the ancient ones now.
Mother was dead.
The sharp point of abandonment cut into him, his breath fitful and hoarse in his throat. The voices were still speaking, but he couldn’t hear them, didn’t want to. What more could they possibly say?
“You have been chosen, Paylee ,” she and the other voices said.
Paylee looked up at the swaying trees, tried to swallow back his sobs-keep brave.
“Now, it is you who must choose. Follow the path of your spirit, dear Paylee.”
“I don’t know how. I’m afraid,” Paylee said. Tears ran down his face and hung at the curve of his chin. “I don’t want to choose.”
“You must. Trust in your heart and you will find the way.”
The whispers stopped. Paylee wanted to go back home, tend to his mother’s passing, and weep in the flower garden. He stepped from the stone garden and into the needle-thick canopy of the woods. An invisible, silent power steered him deeper into another section of the forest, one he hadn’t been to since he could remember—the path that led to the village.
A slice of bone-white moonlight cut through the trees and landed on a slumped form in the dirt. Paylee ran over to the person and nudged the left shoulder back. His mother’s face fell to the side, her eyes pinned to the night above, frozen wide in the grip of death.
Paylee jerked his hand back with a choking gasp. A warm, sap-like substance coated his fingers. A cry shot from his throat. A puddle of blood seeped across his mother’s chest, a red darker than he thought possible.
“Mother! Who did this?” There was no answer.
Paylee picked up a large stone. He was going to skip it all the way to heaven. “Why!” he cried, shouting at the sky. “Why didn’t you warn me?”
“Why would I do that?”
But it wasn’t mother and the ancient ones. A crumble of rotted wood jolted Paylee to his feet. Raine appeared from around a trunk as stealth as a panther. His eyes shone like crimson stars, and Paylee realized then it was the reflection of blood over his palms.
“I’m sorry, Paylee. Choices were made. Mother killed Lilah.”
Paylee slipped the stone into his pocket and searched the ground for the rock wheel. If there was ever a time he needed the council of the ancient ones, it was now. “How could she?” he replied. “Mother was sick.”
“It’s true. Mother gave me an herb to give Lilah that would take the child from her belly, but it took her too. She knew it would.”
“No! Mother knows the plants better than anyone. She wouldn’t do that. She respected your choices.”
“Did she?” Raine edged closer to him, the flame in his eyes turned into a blaze.
“Why would she do that?”
“You know why. She was threatened by her and the villagers, scared I was going to leave you both for them.”
“You mean, aren’t I?”
Something wasn’t right. It stirred deep in Paylee’s gut, even before he heard the ancient ones speak again, “He hides truth.”
Mother hadn’t killed the village girl. A tremor quaked inside Paylee and bled everything in his world red. Breath knotted in the back of his throat and pulled tight against his cords. “You killed her,” he rasped. “I know you did! You killed her!”
A snide grin spread into Raine’s eyes. “Little Paylee, so wise, so mature. You think I’m going to live in these woods forever? Taking care of you and mother while my life slips away? Mother made the wrong choices, and we paid for them!”
“She was set up.”
Raine clucked his tongue. “It doesn’t matter anymore. My destiny is behind those walls, and the only way to get inside them is to bring the villagers what they want.”
“Please, Raine. Don’t do this.”
Raine fell silent and stepped towards him. Paylee dipped his hand into his pocket and curled his fingers tight around the stone. Fear squeezed around his wriggling heart.
“The woods have spoken to me,” Paylee said. “They’ve shown me my destiny too.”
Raine lingered in his advance on him. “So, you’ve made your choice, little brother?”
The rock in Paylee’s hand was as smooth as the best of them, and tonight it wouldn’t skip across the river. Paylee pulled back and chucked the stone at Raine’s temple. Bull’s-eye. He crumbled and smacked the back of his head against a boulder.
“Raine? Raine!” Paylee ran over to him and shook his shoulders. His limp neck jostled his head side to side. Paylee couldn’t undo what he’d done. Another hoarse sob escaped him—change choking him tight around the throat.
A rose dawn spread its light over the stone garden and bathed the sacred circle of whispering trees with the same pink as the belly of the fish that squirmed in Paylee’s hand. With ease, he drew the tip of the blade beneath its gills and slit down the middle. He laid it skin-side down on a hot rock by the fire and seasoned the flesh with dried verbena.
On the horizon, Paylee knew another storm would gather, one shaped of dark horses and pointed spears. The villagers would find what they were looking for. So hoped Paylee. He owned his destiny now, and it took him down river, to a place far away.
© 2014 by Erin Cole
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