Michael Rousseau looked through the window. He thought of it as a bedroom window, though of course the apartment consisted of only one small room containing a bed, fridge, table with two chairs, closet, and a sink. The window looked out onto the backyard of the rooming house. When he came to view the apartment, he’d seen that the backyard stretched about thirty feet back and fifty wide with a couple of trees, some hedges that provided privacy from the road, and a large bird bath.The landlady had greeted him at the front door. She was no more than middle-aged, but tottered about all hunched over as if she was much older. After helpfully pointing out the mailboxes by the main entrance, she led him slowly upstairs and unlocked the empty apartment.
“The other tenants are, well to be honest, they’re a bit eccentric, but they’re harmless. Gentle creatures, really. Nice to everyone.”
It was a two-story rooming house. Each room was the same, and like a university dorm, they lacked a private washroom. There was one shared washroom per floor, with three toilets and one shower stall.
Scratching his head, Michael thought the building seemed clean enough. The dull yellow walls in the corridor reminded him of an institution, but they had been recently painted. So had this apartment, judging from the faint odour. The fridge was clean and the bed didn’t sag horribly when he sat down. No oven, but as the landlady pointed out, he could purchase an electric hot plate. You could do a lot with a hot plate and perhaps a slow cooker or microwave.
So, the building was clean and well cared for, and the price was surprisingly reasonable. The room was small by off-campus standards, but then beggars couldn’t be choosers. Classes started in just a few days. He’d been accepted at the last minute so living in student residences was out of the question. It would be a good walk to campus, but he liked walking. Gave him a chance to empty his head, let things percolate.
He’d take it, he said.
The landlady gave him an appraising look. “I don’t normally rent to students,” she said. “Too noisy as a rule. But I like to think I’m a good judge of character and you seem alright.” With that, her guarded expression relaxed into a smile. “So let’s go to my office and we’ll see to the paperwork, shall we?”
This morning, technically yesterday morning, he’d moved in with his few possessions, mostly clothes and books. He’d stayed a few days with a local friend, Steve, who thankfully owned a car. Steve helped him move in, then took him shopping for his immediate essentials: kitchenware and the like. Then they’d gone to a nearby pub for some supper and had stayed for the band, a local folk/jazz fusion quartet. They were surprisingly rousing, and had the whole place dancing and singing along.
He’d come back here just after midnight and fallen into bed exhausted. But by 2 AM he was awake again, the full moon shining through his window. As he blinked the sleep out of his eyes, he realized he hadn’t closed the thread-bare curtains. He’d have to pick up some better ones, he thought, as he sleepily trudged to the window. But when he looked out, what he saw was not what he had seen before.
The neighbouring buildings, homes, apartments, and nearby warehouses were gone. The backyard was no longer a yard, it was a large plain with tall grasses and wildflowers, bordered by forest and stream. The night sky was clear and resplendent with stars and a full moon. There was a slight breeze; the grass swayed gently and the stream sparkled as it reflected the moonlight. Had the moon been out earlier tonight? He didn’t remember.
The scene, peaceful and other-worldly, induced such a feeling of calm and tranquility that he scarcely thought it strange when a unicorn sauntered out of the forest.
“I’m dreaming,” Michael realized.
The unicorn moved some 20 yards into the meadow then dipped its head to chew on the grass.
Looking down at his feet and wiggling his toes, Michael felt that this was the most visceral dream he could remember. He could feel the cool of the linoleum on his bare feet, the wood frame of the window with this fingers, and the smooth glass of the window when he pressed his cheek against it.
Looking outside again, he saw the unicorn shake its head, and then it looked up, straight at him.
Michael opened his eyes slightly, glimpsed the faint light of the morning sun peeking through the window, then groaned and rolled over, uncertain what it was that had awakened him.
It was the music, he realized. A flute. Not a recording, a real flute. Getting up out of bed, Michael shuffled to the window and was relieved to see that everything was in its place. Just a dream then. Of course. But this flute wasn’t.
Still wearing his t-shirt and pyjama bottoms, he opened the door. To his right, at the end of the corridor, a man was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the window. Remembering that the doors closed and locked automatically, Michael scooped up his key and walked down the corridor. The sun was streaming onto the man like a spotlight.
“Good morning,” Michael said. The man played on. “It’s a bit early, isn’t it?”
The man paused for a moment. “Sunrise,” he said without taking his eyes off the window, then continued on.
Another door opened. And then another, directly across the corridor from the first.
“Oh, you’ll get used to him,” said the man walking out of the first door. He was tall, moustached, with short, black, curly hair.
“Always starts the morning like this,” said the other. He was a bit shorter than the first, and heavier, but with similar curly hair cut a bit longer. He scratched his head, yawned, and said, “Kind of gets us started on the day.”
“Well, that would do it,” Michael said. “I don’t suppose he could play in his room perhaps, or maybe outside?”
Both men shook their heads. “Others have suggested that, but here he still is. Like I said, you’ll get used to it.”
“Right, on with the day, then. My name’s Michael,” he said, reaching out his hand.
“Hugo,” said the taller man, shaking his hand. “This here’s my brother, Martin.”
“Glad to meet you, Michael,” said Martin shaking his hand in turn. “What brings you here?”
“Oh, I’m a student. Starting classes next week. How about you two?”
The two men glanced at each other. “We’re in the news business,” said Martin.
“News. You mean, journalism?”
“Something like that,” said Hugo. “Not much going on just now, though, so we’re laying low here for a bit.”
“I see,” said Michael. They must be unemployed. “Fair enough.”
Another door opened and a tall, thin man with snow-white hair and goatee sauntered into the hallway. He stretched as he yawned and said, “That time then, is it?”
“This here’s Cornelius,” Hugo said. “Cornelius, Michael.”
Addressing Michael, Hugo continued. “Cornelius is a good man to know. He can take care of pretty much any ailment you might have.”
“Really,” said Michael, shaking Cornelius’ hand. “I’ll have to remember that.”
Cornelius winked at him. “And if you find you’ve trouble with your memory, I can fix that as well,” he said with a smile.
Just then the flute player finished his tune and stood up. He was also quite tall, well over six feet, but thin, with curly, sandy hair, blue eyes, a goatee and… Michael had seen him somewhere before.
“Of course,” Michael said. “You were in the band last night.”
The man’s eyes widened a bit. “Ah, you were over at the pub were you? It was a great crowd last night. I’m Satria. People hereabouts just call me Sat.”
“Michael,” said Michael, shaking Sat’s hand. “I didn’t recognize that music just now. It was beautiful, actually.”
“You liked it?” Sat beamed. “It’s my own composition. More of an improvisation actually. I always play at sunrise, and I play whatever pops into my head that particular day.”
Monday morning, the first day of classes, and it was unseasonably hot. More like July than September. But the sky was clear and the air was fresh, and Michael was invigorated and looking forward to the day.
He'd awakened early, courtesy of Sat, so there was lots of time. After showering, shaving, and dressing in t-shirt, jeans and running shoes, Michael decided he would go for the scenic walk rather than take the most direct route. Grabbing the knapsack packed with notebooks and the texts he would need for today’s classes, he walked to Preston, crossed Carling, then came to a footpath that would lead him around the lake and through the Arboretum. He'd be able to cross the canal by walking over the locks and would end up right on campus.
Although a fast walker, Michael slowed his pace as he entered the Arboretum proper. It was beautiful. The path meandered past deep green grass and all manner of trees, each labelled with its common and Latin names. Wooden bridges took him across streams, and further along he came to large ponds with greenish water dotted with toadstools and bordered by tall grasses.
By one of the ponds was a large willow tree. And at the base of the tree, lying on her back with her eyes closed, was a young woman. She had thick, shoulder-length red hair, short nose, many freckles, and full lips. She was wearing a pale green short-sleeved top and knee-length yellow, floral skirt.
Michael stopped, uncertain whether to continue or to ask if she was alright.
After a moment, without opening her eyes, the woman said, “Well, are you going to just stare at me all day?”
“Actually, I was wondering whether you were OK,” Michael mumbled.
“I’m communing,” she said.
“Communing. With…?” Michael queried.
“The willow tree of course. I think it’s talking to me. Or trying to.”
She opened one eye and squinted a look at him. “Maybe you can help. Come beside me and see if you can make it out.”
“Beside you? You… want me to lie beside you on the grass and listen to the tree?”
“You don’t have to, of course. But it might help,” she said.
A bit bewildered, but curious, Michael said, “OK, right, I’ll lie over here for a bit then.” He set his knapsack on the ground and lay down. Unsure how close to get, he left a couple of yards between them.
“No,” she said. “Over here. Closer. Take my hand,” and she stretched her arm in his direction.
He hesitated for a moment until she said, “Look, it’s alright. I don’t bite.”
Having shuffled over a bit, he took her hand. It was smooth and cool. Then he closed his eyes.
After a minute or so, he asked, "Anything?"
"No. You're not concentrating, are you?"
"Well, not on the tree, no," he admitted, opening his eyes.
The girl sighed, let go of Michael's hand, and sat up. "Well, we're going to have to get to know one another then, aren't we? Then this won't seem a big deal. My name's Alse Flouret."
Michael sat up as well and they shook hands. “Michael Rousseau. I'm just on my way to class, actually."
"So am I," said Alse. "Biology, of course. At least, that's going to be my major. I've always loved living things."
“And you can talk to trees?”
She gave him a look. “Don’t be silly. Still,” she said, resting a hand on the tree’s trunk, “this one seemed… different. I wanted to listen, that’s all.”
“Fair enough,” said Michael.
They got up and walked together to the locks. “So, what about you?” Alse asked.
“Biochemistry, I think. I’m interested in living things, but more at the cellular level.”
When they reached the locks, a large cabin cruiser was going through. The skipper, a fit grey-haired man, was bringing the boat into the chamber. The crew were standing by to close the gates behind it.
“What a shame,” said Alse. “We’ll have to wait a while in this beautiful place.”
Michael grinned and they sat across from one another at a picnic bench. Resuming their conversation, they were oblivious to the fact that, half an hour later, the boat had cleared the locks and the path across the canal was open again.
Michael and Alse clinked their glasses together. It was Friday and they were at the White Hart, seated at a small table close to the stage.
“To the end of the beginning,” said Michael.
Alse swallowed a mouthful of ale. “The first week of classes.”
Setting down her mug, she added, “You know, I’ve an almost irresistible urge to smash my mug on the floor and call out for another.”
Michael’s face fell a bit. “Please don’t,” he said.
Her eyes glinting, Alse picked up her mug.
“Oh, look,” Michael said with relief, looking past her. “The band is setting up.”
Alse turned her head.
“Saved by the band,” she said, and with a sigh, Alse put down her mug.
“You know though,” continued Alse, “if I’d broken the mug, they’d need someone to sweep it up. Maybe they’d have offered me a job.”
“That’s doing it the hard way,” said Michael. “Are you looking?”
Alse gave him a look.
“For a job I mean,” Michael clarified.
“I have a grant and a scholarship, but it’s not enough. I need something part time to make up the difference.”
“Your parents didn’t leave you much, then,” said Michael.
Alse shook her head. “They died young. So young they hadn’t even got around to life insurance. My foster parents were great, but they don’t have a lot of extra money, and they have two kids of their own to see to.”
On the stage, a small area raised about six inches from the floor, Sat came up to the front and started his soundcheck. He winked in Michael’s direction as he tapped the microphone and spoke “check” a few times.
“You know him?” Alse asked.
“Sat? He lives on my floor. Plays the flute here and, just for good measure, outside my door every morning at sunrise.”
“Does he?” Alse, said, brightening. “What a lovely way to wake up.”
“Not really,” said Michael, just as Sat came to the table and sat down.
“Hey, Michael,” said Sat. “Glad you could make it.”
“You guys were a blast the last time I saw you. Sat, this is my friend Alse.”
Sat shook her hand. “Glad to know you, Alse.”
Michael regarded him. “You nervous about the show, Sat? You seem a bit on edge.”
Sat blinked, then smiled. “Well, you know, there’s always jitters before a show. They go away soon enough, once we get going.”
Alse leaned forward. “I don’t suppose they’re hiring here, are they?”
Michael’s eyes widened a bit in surprise, then mouthed “Sorry” to Sat. Sat didn’t take his eyes off of Alse.
“Nothing wrong with a bit of forthrightness,” said Sat. “Actually, they’re looking for someone to wait tables, part time. You interested?”
Alse swallowed, then said, “Yes, absolutely.”
“Consider it done. Just speak to James, he’s the manager here. Come in tomorrow, tell him I said so and you’ll be all set.”
“I can’t believe it!” said Alse. She leaned over, and kissed Sat on the cheek.
Blushing, Sat rose to join his band for some last minute warm up.
Michael, recovering from his surprise, grinned and said, “Well, I think that calls for another round. On you, of course, as you’re now gainfully employed.”
Michael and Alse welcomed the cool evening air when they left the pub at midnight. Alse lived just a few blocks away, so they walked together, Alse putting her arm through Michael's.
When they reached her door, Alse stepped back and regarded Michael for a moment.
"What?" he asked.
"I'm not going to invite you up. Not tonight," Alse said. "It just doesn't feel like the time is right. Will you be upset?"
Michael smiled. She truly was like no one he'd met before.
"Why yes," he said. "Yes I will. I'll likely go home and pout and stamp the floor in frustration. But that's OK. Don't worry about me."
"You're silly," Alse said, then kissed him lightly on the lips. "I think I love you. But, I don't know. Something tells me the time just isn't right."
Michael put his hand lightly on her shoulder. "It's right when it's right for both us," he said. "See you soon."
With that, Alse beamed brightly at him then dashed through the door of her apartment building.
Michael stood, lost in thought for a time, then headed home. Not that he would get much sleep. He thought he was falling in love as well.
One month later, Michael asked, "Is the time right?”
"Sorry, it just isn’t,” Alse said. Are you OK?"
November, and Michael was coughing as he fetched the key for his room.
“Quite a cough you’ve got there, said Cornelius. “I can fix that.”
And he did.
After fall term exams were over, Michael whispered to Alse, “What about now?"
Alse shook her head sadly.
It was near the end of the Winter term. Wearing slippers and a dressing gown, with a towel thrown over his shoulder, Michael crossed the hallway to the washroom, then realized he’d forgotten the key. He turned around just in time to see the door shut and lock. He sighed.
"Oh, great," he muttered to himself. "Now I'll have to go see Daphne. Well, might as well be clean when I do."
He went ahead and showered, then dried himself and put on the dressing gown, pulling the belt tight.
He’d first run into Daphne a few days after moving in. As he trudged up the stairs after an exhausting day of classes and labs, he found her in front of him on the landing, blocking the way. She was washing the floor with a bucket a mop.
Not much older than Michael, she regarded him with mild curiosity. She had a long but attractive face, large eyes, and fair hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her checkered shirt was tied in front, revealing a few inches of flat belly, and was open quite low. Michael had to will himself not to stare at the swelling of her breasts.
“So who are you?” she asked.
“Um, I’m Michael. I live in 207.”
The woman nodded, unimpressed. “I heard about you. The student.”
“That’s right. And you are…?”
“Daphne,” she said. “I do the maintenance around here. Keep an eye on things.”
Michael unhitched his heavy backpack and set it on the stairs. “Nice to meet you, Daphne. Do you think I could get up to my room?”
She shook her head. “Not just now. Floor’s wet. You’ll have to talk to me ‘till it dries. Unless there’s anything else you’d like to do?”
Michael blinked. He couldn’t quite read her face, but he wasn’t completely comfortable with what he saw there.
“Oh, give him a break, Daphne,” came a voice from down the hall.
“Give me a break, Dunmore,” Daphne called back. “Just being friendly. Is that a crime?”
There was a pause, then Dunmore answered, “That depends.”
Daphne laughed sharply, then regarded Michael. “Well, the floor might be dry now. Just let me check.”
With that, Daphne turned her back to Michael and bent over with her low cut jeans. Entranced, Michael barely turned his head before Daphne stood and said, “OK, seems dry enough. See you around, Michael. Need anything, just let me know. My apartment is downstairs, 107. You're right on top of me,” she added with a smile.
Michael tried to smile back as he picked up his backpack and climbed the stairs and past Daphne to his room. Daphne happened to back up as he passed, gently brushing against him.
“Sorry,” she mumbled.
Michael glanced back and saw a wider smile on her face. “Sorry indeed,” he thought, shaking his head. She was worse than any guy he’d met.
Looking up, he saw a man a few doors down leaning against the wall. He was short, just over five feet, and rotund, with thick, black curly hair, beard and moustache.
“Dunmore?” Michael asked.
“Dunny, as my friends call me,” he answered with a Scottish accent.
They shook hands.
“You’ll have to not mind Daphne,” said Dunny. “She chases after everyone. Half the the time she’s teasing, half the time not. Girls too, I should think. So don’t take it personally.”
“There are some interesting characters here, aren’t there?” Michael commented.
Dunny smiled. “You’ve no idea,” he said.
Now, Michael swallowed his embarrassment and knocked on Daphne’s door. She opened it, then eyed him up and down.
“Well,” she said, smiling broadly, “this is a nice surprise. Come in.”
“I, um, locked myself out. Could you let me back in?”
She stepped closer and took hold of one end of his belt. “Sure you don’t want to just come in first?” She gave the belt a light tug. “I’m sure we’ll find something to talk about.”
Michael sighed and stepped back slightly, gripping the belt himself. “Thanks, but no. I really need to get back in my room.”
“Shame,” said Daphne, retreating into her apartment for a moment then returning with a set of keys. “Some other time maybe. No need to dress up for me.”
Michael smiled uncomfortably and let her lead the way to his room.
It was odd about the White Hart, Michael thought as he and Alse wormed their way through the crowd. Come here when it's empty and it doesn't look particularly large at all. Yet somehow, no matter how many people showed up on a given night, there was room for everyone. Well, standing room if nothing else.
They had finished their last exam of the winter term that afternoon. Alse wasn't here to work. She was here to celebrate. To Michael's surprise, it was her idea. When he'd shook his head and said he was really tired, she'd whispered in his ear, "I have a feeling. This might be the right time."
Michael's fatigue had melted away after that.
It was hot, most faces in the crowd glistening as they moved in rhythm to the music. The band was playing a slow number now, and Michael was very conscious of Alse as her body pressed into his. He put his arm around her and she dropped her head onto his shoulder. After a while, she lifted her head up again, brushed her lips to his ear and whispered, “I’m thirsty.”
Michael grinned and kissed her. “I love the way you whisper sweet nothings,” he said. “I’ll see if I can’t get us a couple.”
After worming his way through the crowd, Michael squeezed into a spot in front of the bar. A minute or two later, he managed to catch the eye of the bartender.
“Michael!” Dunny said with a broad grin. “Had a feeling you’d be here tonight.”
“How’s life as a bartender?” Michael asked, struggling to speak loud enough over the music.
“Grand, really. It’s a great gig, all thanks to Sat. Almost makes up for the early morning wake-ups,” he added with a wink. “Now, what can I get you?”
“Two lagers, I think,” Michael said.
“Ah. So you’ll be here with Alse then,” Dunny said as he collected two glasses and started running the tap. “And how is she, then?”
“Great, thanks. We just finished exams.”
“Well, she’s quite a girl, isn’t she?” said Dunny, setting the beers down in front of Michael. Then his eyes drifted towards the stage. “Quite a girl indeed.”
Michael took a sip from from one of the glasses, then turned to see what Dunny was looking at. He nearly dropped the glass. The band was playing a lively Irish jig featuring Sat’s flute. Alse had found her way onto the stage and was dancing with Sat as he played. Her face was flushed, her green eyes wide and bright, her mouth set in a bright smile that made Michael’s heart melt, her skirt flying about her bare legs.
Michael took a long draught of his beer as he watched. He looked back at Dunny, who gave him a wink then went to serve his other patrons.
“So much life,” Michael said out loud to himself. “She’s so full of life.”
It was after midnight, and Michael and Alse, both tipsy and giddy, had lurched, laughed, and hushed each other until they reached Michael’s building and crept stealthily to his room. It wasn’t unusual for several tenants to pop in and out of each others rooms or to have conversations in the hallway. Michael had dreaded the teasing comments and looks they’d get. But he needn’t have worried. The floor was quiet. In fact he’d hardly ever seen it so quiet. And tonight, that suited him just fine.
No sooner was the door closed behind them than they shed their coats and then their clothes, and set about exploring each others bodies with their hands, mouths and tongues. They found their way onto the bed, and Michael could feel her wetness on his thigh.
But just as he started to reach for the protection he kept close by, Alse stiffened and sat up, swinging her legs over the side of the bed.
“What?” Michael asked. “Are you OK?”
Alse took a moment to answer. “I’m fine,” she said. “But something’s… changed.”
Groaning inwardly, Michael hardly dared say anything. Please come back to bed, he thought at her for a time, then gave up.
“What is it?” he asked finally.
Alse grabbed Michael’s shirt, stood up and put it on, and approached the door.
“I’m not sure,” she said. She paused, then turned to Michael. “Do you hear it?”
“Hear what?” Michael said, getting up and putting on his trousers.
Alse opened the door a crack, peered through, then stepped back and threw it open wide.
Michael, standing next to Alse, was transfixed. Outside of the door, where the hallway should have been, he saw a meadow with grasses and flowers, lit by a full moon and a myriad of stars. Fireflies darted about, leaving silver streaks in their wake. The meadow was bordered by a forest ahead and to the left, and a stream to the right.
Alse stepped out of the room. Michael tried to stop her, but she turned, smiled gently, and, taking his hand, led him forward.
“This can’t be real,” Michael said, as he bent over and brushed his hand against the grass. “I must be dreaming.”
“Really,” said Alse. “So you were about to make love to me and just nodded off, is that what you’re suggesting?”
“Doesn’t seem likely, does it?” Michael admitted. “Still, this place seems dream-like. And familiar. Ah! I know,” he said. “My first night in the apartment, I had a dream. I walked to the window and saw this very place. And while I was gazing at it, a unicorn came…”
Michael stopped short as, at that moment, a unicorn sauntered out of the woods.
Pure white, with a long, snowy mane, and a horn jutting upward from its forehead that gleamed like polished ivory. The unicorn approached slowly, stopping occasionally to taste the long grasses. Michael and Alse, transfixed, approached the unicorn slowly, until finally they were just a couple of feet from each other.
Whenever Michael had imagined unicorns, he’d thought of them as large and majestic. The unicorn in front of him was surprisingly small, the size of a small horse, and somehow very casual. It looked at Michael with large, unselfconscious eyes, then Alse, and then it spoke.
“Hey, Michael. And you must be Alse. You’ve no idea how great it is that you’re here.”
Michael took a step back and blinked. “You know our names?” he asked stupidly.
“Well, yeah,” said the unicorn. “But you’ve never seen me in this form. I’m Cornelius.”
“Cornelius? Cornelius that lives on my floor?”
“The one and only. I helped you get over that cough in November. Hugo and Martin introduced us right after you moved in. Isn’t that right, guys?” said Cornelius, turning his head to the left.
A pair of ravens approached and landed on Cornelius’ back.
“Indeed we did,” said one of the ravens, with a voice that sounded identical to Hugo’s.
“I think I’m just going to sit down for a minute,” said Michael, “before I fall down.”
“Feeling light-headed?” Cornelius asked. “I can fix that.”
“Just shut up, will you?” said Michael.
Alse crouched down beside him and put an arm around his shoulder. Michael rubbed his face with his hands, looked up at Cornelius, who hadn’t vanished, then turned to Alse.
“You seem pretty OK with all this,” Michael commented.
Alse smiled that gentle smile of hers. “I can’t explain it,” she said, “but somehow I feel quite at home here. While all this is strange on the one hand, on the other it feels perfectly natural.”
Michael stood again. “So,” he said, “were all you guys magical creatures of some sort? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Not just the guys,” said a woman’s voice.
Glancing towards the stream, Michael groaned. There was Daphne, emerging from the water, naked as the day she was born. She moved towards them, a mischievous smile on her face, with a slow seductive strut that put Michael in mind of a Victoria’s Secret model, but much more so. He gulped. Daphne pulled her wet hair back so her chiseled face stood out. Water was still dripping off her. Michael’s eyes were particularly drawn to the drops falling from her breasts.
Reaching Michael, she walked around him in a close circle, touching him all the while with her index finger. When she came up behind him, she pressed her body to his and wrapped her arms around his waist.
“Something tells me you’re happy to see me,” she murmured, as her right hand started to descend.
Alse interceded. “If you don’t mind,” she said, unwrapping Daphne’s arms from her boyfriend, “he’s with me.”
“Hmm,” Daphne murmured as she stepped away and moved beside the unicorn. “Shame.”
“Behave yourself, Daphne,” said another voice.
The speaker was a man, or male, some two feet tall with a long, pointed hat, dressed in earth-toned colours.
“Dunnie,” said, Daphne, “you never let me have any fun.”
“Dunnie,”said Michael. “Great. So the only one missing is Sat. Is he here as well?”
At that, Michael heard a flute. It was playing a tune he could just barely catch, something soft and gentle, in a rhythm that was calming, beautiful, and at the same time as old as nature herself.
As they listened, all heads turned to the woods. A faun emerged, half man, half Sat, actually, and half goat. A satyr, Michael realized. Of course. Sat. He shook his head.
When Sat was a few feet away, he said, “How are you feeling, Michael?”
Sat looked remarkably like himself. The hair and beard were a bit different, longer, wilder somehow. His legs, covered in thick brown fur, ended with hooves.
“At the moment? Wonderful,” Michael said. The music had calmed him. He was smiling and relaxed, despite the strangeness.
“That’s great,” said Sat. Then turning to Alse, he got down on one knee and lowered his head. The others did likewise.
Alse and Michael looked at each other, puzzled.
“Why are you doing this?” Alse said.
As they all rose again, Hugo, the black raven, said, “We’ve been looking for you. For a long time. Until we finally realized we would never find you. We couldn’t. What we could do, though, was to find the one who would discover you for us.”
At that, Hugo flew over to Michael’s shoulder.
“Me?” Michael said. “You didn’t find me. I moved in with you.”
“And how did you come to do that?” asked Cornelius.
Michael thought back. Steve had been driving him around town, looking at several apartments. None were suitable, being either too expensive or too dilapidated.
They’d gone to get some coffee after a while and sat on a bench outside. Steve was trying to be encouraging, but Michael had a feeling he was sunk. That was when he noticed a newspaper lying on the end of the bench, folded in such a way as to reveal a few advertisements in the classifieds. Michael picked up the paper and noticed an ad for the apartment in a rooming house, the apartment he was living in now.
“I found an ad,” Michael said. The unicorn seemed to grin.
“And one of you left it for me to find.”
The creatures about him nodded. Hugo flew back to Cornelius.
“But how? How did you know?”
“We did,” said Sat, “and for now let’s just leave it at that. The more important question is, why?”
Michael shook his head. “Just hang on a minute. I’m still trying to come to grips with all of this. First question: how is it you’re just like everyone else when I’ve seen you before?”
“That would be the magical part of being a magical creature,” Daphne said.
“Not helpful, Daphne,” said Dunnie. “We don’t actually change, you see Michael. When we’re in your world, what you see is a projection of what we actually are. It’s kind of like holding up a ball to the light. What you see on the wall is a flat circle, not a three-dimensional object. We exist, well, not in a higher dimension necessarily, but certainly a different one.”
“Which brings me to the next question,” Michael said. “Where are we, exactly?”
Dunnie took off his hat and scratched his head. He looked up at Cornelius, who nodded.
“We’re in the Someplace Else,” said Cornelius, “which kind of goes without saying. Let’s put it this way: after the Earth was formed, and life started to appear, then in a very real sense the Earth came to be alive in its own right; and this place, and all of us who live here, came to exist. It’s just as real as your world. They kind of exist side-by-side is the best way I can put it. There’s doorways joining the worlds sometimes, in this case quite literally.” Cornelius nodded towards something behind Michael and Alse. They turned and saw that the door to Michael’s room was still there, and still open.
“The door didn’t close,” Michael said. “It always closes.”
“Well, that might be because what you’re seeing here is a representation of your door more than the actual thing,” said Cornelius.
Michael ran his hand through his hair. “OK. OK. So, let’s talk about why. Why are we here?”
“You read the news,” Hugo answered. “You know what’s going on around you every day. The Earth, the living Earth, is none too healthy these days. There’s a lot of checks and balances in nature, but this time it’s really flummoxed and doesn’t know anymore how to find a balance between it’s needs and human needs. It has to do something, but can’t do it alone. It needs someone who’s human, or was at least raised as a human, to help. This is where Alse comes in.”
Alse had been calm and smiling through the exchange with Michael and the others, exalting in the sense of this place, in how it made her feel. Now, her eyes widened.
“What do you mean, at least raised as a human? What are you saying?” Alse asked.
“What he’s saying,” responded Sat, “is that, from a human’s perspective, you’re as much a so-called magical creature as we are. Just in a different way.”
Without saying a word, Michael and Alse took each other’s hand.
“When you were conceived, Alse, a part of the Earth, call it the Earth Spirit if you like, became part of you.”
“Go on,” she said, after Sat had paused.
“The Earth needs someone, a human, to join with it. Someone who understands your world and can kind of act as a go-between.”
“And thats… me?” Alse asked.
She looked at the magical creatures before her. There was no need for them to answer.
“Of course it’s me,” Alse said. “At some level, I think I’ve always known.” Turning to Michael, she said, “This is why I was drawn to the willow tree. Maybe it was a kind of communication channel. I knew I could feel it, almost understand it.”
“What are you saying exactly?” Michael said. “That you want Alse to stay here? That’s not going to happen.”
“Michael!” Alse admonished. “And it’s your decision to make, is it?”
Michael dropped his head. “No, of course not. It’s just that I don’t want to lose you. I couldn’t bear it. We’ve just found each other.”
“I don’t think you will,” Alse said, pulling Michael into a close hug. “I’ll always be with you. Just in a different way, I expect.”
Releasing Michael, she turned to the others.
“What do I have to do?”
At this, the creatures casts their heads down and shuffled their feet, or paws. All except Daphne.
“You have to make love to your boyfriend,” Daphne said. “Here. Now. After that joining, you’ll be ready to join with the Earth completely.”
“What will happen to me?” Alse asked.
“You’ll change,” said Cornelius. “You’ll still be you in a sense, but you’ll also be part of the living Earth.”
Alse beamed. “That sounds wonderful.”
“But Alse,” Michael started.
Alse put a finger on his lips.
“Hush,” she said. “This has to happen. You know it does. This is why I knew that tonight, the time was finally right.”
Alse took Michael’s hand and lowered herself, and him, down to the ground. Michael’s head looked up.
“With all of them watching?” Michael asked. “Seriously?”
“Come along, everyone,” said Sat. “They need privacy. Michael, we won’t be seeing you again, at least, not any time soon, so we wish you well. And thank you.”
With that, the creatures dispersed. Daphne stooped to pick up Dunnie, nestling the tiny creature between her breasts.
Michael’s jaw dropped. “Daphne and Dunnie? Who’d have thought.”
“Shut up and kiss me, silly,” said Alse.
Michael woke up alone. The moon was no longer visible, but the sky was full of stars, more stars than he’d ever seen. There was no sound other than the bubbling of the stream and the occasional splash.
“Alse,” he called. He looked all around. He was alone. “Alse!”
As he sat up, he realized that he was no longer lying on a bed of grass, but of poppies, each with red petals and, in the dim light, what looked like a green eye in the centre. The colour of Alse’s hair and eyes.
“Alse?” he said, as he began to tear up. He brushed the poppies gently with his fingers. “Oh, Alse, what will I do without you?”
Just then a breeze came up, and the grasses in the meadow made a sound as they brushed together, and he almost heard a voice. “Live,” it said.
With a sigh, Michael gathered his trousers and shirt, and walked back through the door into his room. The door closed behind him. He turned to open it again, but the meadow was gone. There was just the dimly lit hallway. Turning away, he collapsed onto his bed and fell into a dreamless sleep.
He was awakened by a loud knock at his door. Still shirtless, dressed in only his jeans, he opened the door. It was the landlady.
“Morning,” Michael yawned. Then the events of the previous night came back to him, and he staggered for a moment.
“Oh, are you alright dear?” she asked.
“Um, yeah, I guess so. What can I do for you?”
“Well, I don’t know. I’m glad you’re here, though, because all the other tenants have gone. Like they’ve disappeared off the face of the earth with all their possessions. Even Daphne’s gone, and that’s not like her, she’s not missed a day since she started here.” She looked up at him with sad eyes. “You wouldn’t know where they are, would you?”
“I really don’t,” said Michael. “Sorry I can’t be more help.”
“Never mind, then,” the woman said, even more stooped over than before. “It’s not your fault.” As she shuffled off down the hall towards the stairs, she muttered to herself, “Don’t know what I’m going to do now.”
Michael closed the door, turned, and saw Alse’s clothes lying on the floor next to his bed. Sitting on the bed, he picked them up and buried his face in them.
Fifty five years later, Michael set down the cloth bag of groceries, took out his key, and entered room 207, the same room he had lived in all those years ago. Despite his successes, Michael had eschewed financial gain, preferring to live as simply as possible. As he got older, and it came time to downsize, he thought to himself, “Well, I might as well do it properly”. So he came full circle, moving into the single room he’d rented during his first year of university.
As was the case before, he owned little furniture, though the walls were covered with plaques and photos. One wall featured his doctorate in environmental science, awards for popularizing science, clippings of interviews in newspapers, and a couple of magazine covers feature him and his works. The opposite wall displayed his AAAS awards and mounted reprints of his major papers. The awards were for a series of review articles that laid out the case for global climate change in such a way that, for even the most die-hard deniers, the evidence was insurmountable. Real policy changes had followed, and were making a measurable difference. At the time, though, it wasn’t clear whether this hadn't been too little too late.
One reprint in particular always caught Michael’s eye. The now classic Science article in which he identified a new form of algae—one that was entirely airborne, and that absorbed sufficient carbon as to help tilt the scales towards environmental recovery. It’s origins remained unknown. As the algae multiplied, it had added a greenish tinge to the sky, so that it would forever more be more turquoise than blue. He’d coined the popular name Alseid aerium, after Alse, of course. “We did it together,” he thought with a smile.
He approached the table, where he kept the only picture of Alse that he had in a small frame. He touched his finger to his lips then touched the photo, gazing at it with a sad smile.
Carrying the groceries had tired him out. After putting the perishable items in the fridge, he lay down on the bed to nap. But no sooner had he dozed off than he awoke. There was an odd sound coming from the corridor. Was someone calling him? He shuffled to the door, opened it, and stood stock still.
There was the meadow. At times during his life, he’d wondered if he had dreamt it. Maybe he was dreaming now, for that matter. But he didn’t care. He stepped forward, feeling better than he had for ages. It was broad daylight. Birds were singing, a gentle wind blew the grasses, and he relished the clean scent and deep greens all around him.
Then he saw her, coming out of the forest.
“Alse?” he said.
There was no mistaking her. After all these years, she hadn’t changed an iota. In fact, she was wearing the same skirt and top as the day they met.
He started to run, then stopped, surprised that he could run. He looked at his arms and hands. The wrinkles and ages spots had vanished, and he felt strong, stronger than at any time since his twenties.
Alse had nearly reached him by this time. He stepped forward and they embraced, long and hard.
“Alse,” said Michael. “How can this be?”
“Hush,” said Alse, putting a finger to his lips. Then, as she had done before, she lay down in grass, bringing Michael with her, and they made love.
Night came, and then morning. Alse and Michael were gone. Where they had lain, midst the dew-covered grasses and wildflowers, was a bed of poppies.