She wasn’t dead. She suddenly knew it was true.
Her skin was bruised, raw and bleeding where it had hit the rocks and gravel on the road. Her mouth hurt like hell. Gingerly, she swept her tongue across teeth -- one molar broken -- roof and cheeks. She tasted the coppery tang of her own blood -- minor damage, all things considered.
Ayda sat up and moved her aching limbs as she looked around. She must have bounced once she hit the road, been knocked out and rolled unconscious onto this meadow. The sun was high but she wasn’t certain how long she’d been exposed to it. The last time she remembered anything it was night time. The moon had been high and full.
Well, she couldn’t sit here forever. They wouldn’t be coming back and she wouldn’t be sad to never see them again. Good riddance, in her opinion. She was lucky to be alive with no serious injury to remind her of what she didn’t want to remember. The past had always been easy for her to forget.
It didn’t take much effort on her part to follow the road westward and locate a town. There Ayda was able to purchase or trade for some tools, food and personal effects. A few inquiries confirmed that the meadow where she’d been saved was unoccupied and had been abandoned by a family long ago. There was still a cottage but no one knew the state it was in.
“I doubt anybody around here would stop you if you wanted to take it over,” the woman who owned the general store told her. She was blowzy and friendly and, Ayda suspected, more than a little bit nosey. “But I don’t think you’ll like it much if you did.”
“Why not?” Ayda asked.
“The woods around there aren’t safe ... for anyone.”
She heard the note of theatrical warning in the store owner’s voice and smiled a bit. “How so?”
The owner waved her hand dismissively in front her. “Oh, don’t worry. No one’s been killed there. It’s not that kind of dangerous.” She handed Ayda another bag from behind the counter.
Ayda made no comment and the woman continued. Her story was clearly too good not to share with a new audience. “It’s more that strange things happen there -- magical things that seem real, but aren’t somehow. The whole town steers clear of there. It’s enchanted.”
Ayda slung the last bag over her shoulder. “Sounds perfect,” she told her. “I’m looking for a little enchantment.”
“Do you need any help carrying all that?” The store owner asked her as she turned to leave.
“I’ll manage. Thanks.”
Throughout that spring and early summer Ayda worked to create something she’d never really had before - a home. Every time she pounded in another nail or planted a new seed this home grew and, in fact, the land itself seemed to be helping her build it. It breathed life into her work making it grow and elaborate on a massive scale. In truth, Ayda felt a bit like an instrument doing her part in a larger plan over which she had little control. But, since it was satisfying to watch her labor succeed, she didn’t worry overmuch. In her experience, there were far worse masters to work for.
It didn’t take Ayda long before she noticed that she wasn’t alone in that wooded meadow. For instance, her cottage and garden showed daily signs of fairy activity. The little scamps left face impressions on her kitchen windows and bit holes in the leaves of their favorite plants. Uncertain of their intentions, Ayda decided to attempt to make friends.
To that end, she would occasionally leave her kitchen door open while she was outside so that they could easily find the tiny sugar cookies she’d make and stack in what she hoped were fairy-appealing towers. She also left bundles of leaves from the plants with the most holes on her doorsteps and window sills at night. Since the cookie towers and bundles of leaves disappeared with little fuss, she figured her offerings had been accepted. No further escalation of fairy activity ensued.
Then, one day, out in the soft soil in her garden, Ayda saw something that gave her pause. She often saw the tracks of rabbits and raccoons and deer in her yard, but never moose and never human. But, sure enough, she found a flurry of both types of tracks in her garden that morning. The moose tracks were large and deep while the human tracks, which were also large, were oddly bare, each toe easily discernible in the loose earth.
Ayda looked at these tracks with some concern and wondered what they could mean. As the store owner had told her, very few people from the town came to see her in her enchanted home or even bothered much with her when she came into town for supplies or conversation. The idea that any of them would wander around her home at night -- let alone barefoot -- seemed extremely hard to imagine. Yet, there was no mistake. For some reason, she had bare human footprints in her yard.
Not long after that she began to see the moose, at first out through her window, and then, one afternoon, she looked up from pounding in a replacement tile on her roof to see it watching her from a safe distance near the woods. It was long-legged and had a big barrel-shaped body, yet it was elegant, its antlers extending in wide curling branches from its sturdy head. Its gaze was steady and it almost looked curious as if it found her fascinating to observe. She wasn’t certain from her vantage point, but she guessed that it was an adult male. It returned her gaze for a moment or two longer before stepping quietly back into the trees.
It was at night the next time anything unusual happened. She had managed to twist her ankle that afternoon jumping from a tree branch farther from the ground than she’d realized, and she was nursing it with some cool well water in a bucket when she heard tapping at the window near her door. Thinking it was probably fairy mischief, Ayda ignored it at first, but the tapping soon became insistent enough for her to hobble over to investigate. The light inside obscured her view of the outside, so she turned down the lamp and peered out across dark meadow and into murky woods. She saw nothing.
That is when something large and strong slammed against her front door with enough force that she heard a crack. Surprised, Ayda stared at the door in disbelief only to fall backwards onto her butt when the door was rammed again with equal force. It held, but for how much longer, she didn’t know.
In a panic, she scrambled on hands and knees, her ankle throbbing, and grabbed the first weapon she could find, which was the kitchen knife she had used to cut her bread for dinner. She got up and hopped back to the door and waited. When nothing immediately happened, she began to get angry.
“Who’s out there?” She demanded in a voice gruff with an anger that was only slightly more powerful than the fear she felt. She was self-sufficient and strong, but an unknown assailant wasn’t something to underestimate. For the first time in a long time, Ayda was in survival mode her body alert for the next attack.
The voice was breathy and sexless and clearly coming from just on the other side of her door.
The hairs on the back of Ayda’s neck went up and she swallowed slowly. “Who are you?” She demanded with far more bravery than she felt. “What do you want?”
This was greeted with further silence before the voice spoke again. “Ayda,” it said with certainty and familiarity. “Don’t you know me?”
Ayda moved back from the door.
“Go away!” She yelled. “Get away from my door!”
This demand was answered with a silence that lasted long enough for Ayda to believe that it had gone. But she slept uneasily that night her body still on high alert. The next morning she stepped out her front door with trepidation. The door was damaged and there were slight scratches on her windows near the door. There were also moose tracks marking the ground in front of her cottage.
The next time Ayda went into town it was several months later when summer was beginning to shift into fall. She hadn’t seen any sign of the moose again and she had begun to forget the fear she had experienced that night. Ayda wanted to spread word in town that she was looking for people to help her take in the harvest. Her garden had yielded far more than she had planned, considering its size, and the area near the woods to one side of her land consisted of pear and apple trees she had only just discovered.
The trees had probably once been planted and tended by deliberate human hands, but they were now wild and practically rolling over with fruit. Ayda and the other beings in the woods couldn’t consume all of the bounty, so she wanted help picking the rest. She told the store owner and a few others of her plans offering to pay helpers in vegetables and fruit. The next day more than a dozen people arrived on her doorstep.
Townspeople kept coming over the next few weeks as the air cooled and green leaves turned russet-purple or gold or scarlet. Some of them were friendly, some of them were not, a few returned for a few days in a row, most picked for only a day, and all of them left with their pay slung in bags over their shoulders or in carts well before sunset. All, that is, except for two intrepid souls, Shylo, a girl who lived not far from Ayda’s place and Moss, a bachelor who seemed rather rootless.
Ayda had had very few friends in her lifetime. She was, in truth, a solitary person, but she was also adaptable and she began to like enjoying a meal and laughter with Shylo and Moss after a day of harvesting. Shylo was very curious about her and asked innocently impertinent questions that Ayda answered carefully so as to be polite without revealing too much. Moss was more reticent and quiet as he watched her talk and laugh with kind brown eyes and a reserved smile of his own. If he spoke, it was in a voice that cracked slightly with lack of use and in which he made unusual observations as if his eyes saw the world differently than everyone else.
When Shylo was needed more on her parents’ land than Ayda’s, and she reluctantly stopped coming daily, Moss stuck around. She found his company welcome and allowed him to camp anywhere he chose on her land. He helped her pick and preserve what was left of the harvest and then happily stayed to enjoy the food and sunny fall weather. It wasn’t very long before Moss moved in to share Ayda’s cottage with her.
Over time, Ayda got to know Moss well not only as a lover but also as a close friend. Like her, he was a solitary person and he liked to venture off on his own once or twice a week in the morning only to come back late at night happy to see her but quietly exhausted and smelling of earth and air. She never pried into his business and he, likewise, never pried into hers. They managed to create an individual togetherness that allowed for intimacy without sacrificing autonomy. It was, for a time, exactly what Ayda wanted.
“How do you feel about children?” She asked him one day at breakfast in late-autumn. The leaves had almost all fallen off the trees and the ones that remained had turned black and crunchy. She found the starkness beautiful.
Moss knitted his brows in confusion. “You mean like Shylo?” He asked as he reached for the apple preserves.
Ayda smiled. “Yes, eventually,” she said. “But I was thinking of smaller ones than that.”
She watched and waited as understanding began to dawn on his face. He smiled brightly at her and then nonchalantly turned his attention back to his breakfast.
“So, when do you plan on these children stopping by for a visit?” He asked.
“In the summer sometime,“ she told him as she took a piece of toast from his plate. “And I’m hoping there will only be one.”
“He’s a big strong buck, that one, eh?” The peddler asked her as she looked through his cart for metal utensils.
“Hm?” She asked since she hadn’t really been listening to him and wasn’t interested in doing so then either.
The man made her uncomfortable as most people did when she didn’t know them well. But she felt an additional level of caution with him and had done since he first knocked on her door that day peddling his wares. Ayda had learned to trust this instinct the hard way and her currently contented life didn’t change this knowledge. Still, new tools were hard to pass up lightly.
The peddler nodded in the direction where Moss was hauling oversized branches through the snow to the house where he could chop and stack them for fuel. They had managed to trade with Shylo’s parents for a shaggy cow for whom they had built a small barn and from whom they now got fresh milk and cheese, both of which she craved. The cow, like the peddler, and now Ayda, watched Moss as he worked.
“Your man, “ the peddler clarified with another nod in his direction.
“He’s not my man, “ Ayda told him and pulled out a large soup spoon that looked like it had possibilities. She found his presumption irritating.
“Well,” the peddler laughed with a meaningful glance at her burgeoning belly. “It looks like you’re his, at any rate,” he said in a jolly fashion.
Ayda looked at him and pointed the spoon at an area between his eyes. “I’ll take this one, thanks,” she said.
He took the hint, raised his hands as if in surrender, and concluded their business without further comment. But, just as she started to walk back to the house, she heard his unwelcome voice once again.
“Your man like to take long walks in the woods and down by the marsh?” He asked.
Normally Ayda would ignore someone in a situation like this, but, for reasons she never understood, she turned and faced him again.
“What’s it to you?”
The peddler shrugged. “It’s nothing to me, “ he said. “But maybe it should be to you.”
Ayda said nothing and waited for him to speak his mind.
“People warned you about these woods, I take it,” he continued. “How they can fool you and trick you into believing something that isn’t there?”
Again, Ayda made no reply.
“You might want to follow that man of yours,” he said, an unfriendly smile curling up the sides of his lips. “See who he is, and who he’s with, when he’s not with you.”
Ayda watched the peddler go, her heart beating fast as if in fear. She didn’t like him and, in her experience, those you don’t like aren’t worth listening to, but something about what he said rang true. She stood there for a long time until she felt Moss’s arms wrap around her from behind.
“Are you cold, Ayda?” He asked her, his mouth against the back of her head.
“A little bit,” she said. She turned in his arms and squeezed him close, sharing her body warmth with his.
Days and weeks passed before Ayda decided to follow Moss on one of his weekly trips. She said goodbye to him as usual, checked his progress through a window, and then followed his tracks through the snow once he’d disappeared from view. She moved quietly, her belly balancing her forward on her toes. She could see him faintly in the distance and, when he stopped, she stopped too and hid behind a large tree.
Glancing from behind it, she watched him go to a specific tree where he dug through the snow and dirt at its roots. He eventually pulled out a brown bag and dumped its contents. Amazed, she watched as he shucked his boots and clothing and stood in naked glory in the middle of the freezing air. He put these clothes in the bag and hid it once again. Then he began to don the original contents of the bag, one limb at a time.
She gasped as Moss disappeared and an adult moose took his place. The moose turned slightly in her direction, but she quickly hid and waited patiently. Eventually she looked out again only to find him gone. In a slight daze, Ayda walked around until she spotted a marsh and walked toward it.
The moose, Moss, was there along with about six other moose of differing sizes and, she guessed, sexes. They were chewing on sparse vegetation together like a human family sharing dinner. Moss looked in his element and he greeted another moose nose-to-nose when it approached him. They both began to chew from the same bush. Ayda turned and began to walk quickly back home.
What she had thought she would discover by following Moss, she didn’t now know, but the truth was more than she could imagine or quickly process. Moss was the moose who had been in her meadow last year. Of this she was now certain. He was the creature who had left both moose and human tracks in her garden, since he was clearly, somehow, both at the same time. He had talked to her through the door she had been too afraid to open that horrible night. How long had he planned his human life with her? Did he plan to stay with her forever or live this half-life forever? Or, worse, leave her forever to be a moose again?
Jealousy and betrayal seared through her as she slammed the cottage door behind her. She cursed the peddler for giving her doubts and herself for being so weak as to listen to him. But, then, Moss should have told her. Moss should have loved her enough to share this with her.
He found her, sitting in the dark in the living room, when he came back hours later. He asked her what was wrong, and clearly didn’t believe her when she told him nothing, but, as usual, he didn’t pry. They cooked and ate an uneasy dinner together. She watched him from across the table and wondered how he could still be hungry.
Ayda had heard of shape-shifters, of course. Who hadn’t? But, hearing about and knowing are two different things. She began to look at Moss with new eyes and fancied she could see the moose in him. Why hadn’t she noticed his long lashes before or the oddity of his speech? Why hadn’t she wondered at the delicate strength of his wrists and ankles? She felt sad and stupid and out of these feelings came the need to hurt him.
The next day she got up early and, under the pretext of gathering more firewood, backtracked to where she had seen him dig up his moose skin. She trusted that he would keep the same hiding place, and this trust was rewarded when she easily located the brown bag. She took it and hid it under her jacket and then secretly stashed it at the bottom of a chest in the cottage once she got back home. She had originally planned to burn it, but she found this harder to do once the soft pelt, so familiar and yet unfamiliar, was in her hands.
The next week, when Moss went off on his “walk” Ayda wasn’t surprised when he came back early looking distressed. She didn’t question him, as was their wont, but sat with him and tried to feel pleased that she had made him stay with her. And she did feel pleased that she could control him and his time with her.
Within two weeks, though, Moss was ill. It was as if his energy was leaving him in tiny increments. He still went away from her a couple of days a week, but he always came back within a few hours exhausted and without his usual glow. They barely talked anymore and he barely ate anything. When she snuggled up to him in bed, he felt boney and so very cold.
One day, when the icicles on the eaves of the cottage began to drip from the warming rays of the sun, Moss couldn’t leave bed. Distress finally replaced Ayda’s anger. She got into bed with him and hugged and rocked him against her large stomach.
“I’m so sorry,” she told him.
“For what, Ayda?” He asked and, defiantly, she told him everything. She told him what the peddler had said and she told him about following him where she had discovered his secret. She told him how this had made her feel and, deeply ashamed, she told him what she had done. She went to get his moose skin and showed it to him even as she confessed that she had wanted to destroy it.
“You still can, if you want,” he told her.
“I don’t want you to die,” she told him.
“Glad to hear it,” he said. “But I’m not dying. I’m just becoming only human.”
Ayda stared at him in disbelief. “You mean you can be just one or the other?”
“Yes,” Moss breathed. “What do you want me to be, Ayda? I want you to decide. I want you to be happy.”
So, Ayda decided.
Ayda’s daughter was born in late summer just as the garden was beginning to renew itself. Like her mother, she was independent and determined -- and more than a little bit headstrong -- so she began to crawl and talk at about the same time. By the following summer she was an unsteady walker and a frequent talker.
Ayda was planting when she heard her daughter’s baby voice announce, “There he is.” Her chubby finger pointed to the spot in the woods where Moss had emerged and was walking toward them, his brown bag in one hand.
“Yes,” said Ayda. “There he is, baby.”
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