This story is by J.G. Cole and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Sydney awoke deep in the forest. It was midday now, and autumn’s mute light fell through shades of rust and honey. Her right knee screamed like there were a thousand shards of glass splintering through her skin. She gripped at it, trying desperately to choke down her grief.
Breathe, she told herself and slowly counted in ten, out ten. She liked numbers that ended in zero. Her older sister was thirty now. Today, in fact. But thinking of Linnet erupted a rage within her which fed the pain in her leg.
She took off her scarf and crisscrossed it above and below her knee to stabilize it. Maybe her knee could be fixed, and she could remain a first-soloist at the NYC Ballet. Maybe.
Sydney began dancing when she was four years old. She was twenty-two now. Three months ago, her agent had told her that if she danced particularly well this season, then she might be promoted to principal next spring. She should be practicing now; the season started in only two weeks.
Do not cry!, she told herself. Never show weakness. It was the mantra her ballet coach had given her when she was eight. By that age, she was up to ten hours of class and practice a week, and she remembers feeling like it wasn’t nearly enough. She wanted her body to move all the time. She even danced in her dreams.
Her fists clenched, nails digging into her palms, and she closed her eyes. Her whole body shook as she shoved down the anger and grief.
But there it was: Linnet turning to her on the forest path, a cold disappointment draining the color from her face, her voice unnaturally controlled. “Go back,” she’d said. “Since you can’t stand being here with me. Just go.” And then Linnet had flung the keys at her, barely missing her face.
Sydney bellowed, the sound raining back in tinny echoes. She opened her eyes and took in her surroundings. Above her, in every direction, sprang the steep sides of the ravine she had tumbled into after stepping in a hole hidden by leaves along the path. To her left there was a pool of mirrored water reflecting a giant tree whose trunk had been hollowed at the base over its long years. The gaping mouth reached into the water. The old tree’s roots stretched out around her in knotted tentacles. In the water, she saw the canopy of leaves over her, breached only by strands of light.
Rubbing her leg, she choked back another wave of pain. Linnet couldn’t be that far down the path. Sydney had only turned back about ten minutes before she fell. But then, she must have hit her head, too, because she lost consciousness for a moment. She reached up and felt around her skull, locating a spot that smarted when she touched it. How long had she been out? A chill spilled over her. They were likely the only people hiking in this part of the woods today. Linnet would be her only hope to get out of here and get treatment before her knee was permanently damaged, if it wasn’t already.
“LINNET!” she yelled.
There was an odd silence around her. Linnet always said the forest had its own music, though Sydney doubted it was any music she could dance to. A small memory whispered to her of smoky air and laughter, of rhythmic sounds and fire-dancing, and her parents were there smiling. She saw the sparks of light leap and fly up to the darkening sky as her four-year-old self watched in awe while Lin twirled and danced with a stick alight at both ends. The sparks fanned out like sparklers. She remembered the compulsion to move to the rhythms. She saw Lin again with her fire-stick, a firebird in dance, beautiful and graceful. Linnet had been a wonderful dancer once. And she remembered that was the moment she knew that she was a dancer, too.
A sound approached from behind her like the rustling of rice paper. She twisted her head around and caught a glimpse of movement over her shoulder. There, perched delicately on a bend in one of the twisted roots, was a strange creature, seeming part human, part insect, with skin the color and texture of sage and almond-shaped indigo eyes.
Sydney flinched. “What the hell!” Maybe she hit her head harder than she thought.
The creature jolted a little closer to her with an odd clicking sound. It was about the size of a small chimp. Maybe it is a chimp, she thought, but then there was a quick flick and a crinkle as it opened and closed its wings. Wings, she thought. Maybe I’m still unconscious. The pain in her knee told her she wasn’t.
“No hell, no dream,” it said.
Again, Sydney flinched. “You can talk?”
“Yes,” It flicked out its wings with another crinkle and rustle and moved one root closer to her. Its angular head cocked to one side and then the other, and it blinked. “Injured,” it said.
Sydney inched back with her arms and tried to put some weight on her leg. She gasped in pain. So, walking was out of the question, and there was no way she could get back up that hill without using both of her legs.
It moved closer and reached a jointed arm to touch her.
“Don’t!” She scooted out of reach.
The creature opened its grey papery wings and made several chirping sounds. “As you wish,” it said, and with a clicking and crinkling disappeared into the hole in the tree.
Sydney screamed at it, screamed the pain and anguish, screamed the fear. Because above all now she was afraid. Breath in, breath out. She remembered Linnet. Where was she? Surely, she had heard her crashing down the slope?
“LINNET!” She let it ring out, loud and long, but again only echoes then silence returned.
“I want to go on a hike,” Linnet had told her. “With you. That’s it. That’s all I want for my birthday.” And despite Sydney’s vehement protestations about how even a day hike would cut too much out of her practice time, Linnet insisted, and Sydney went because she was her only sister and their parents were dead.
“Damn you, Lin,” the anger overtook her now, and she hated Linnet. If she’d destroyed her knee because of this stupid hike…
The rustling returned, and the creature clicked onto the root near her again. She almost welcomed its company this time as it distracted her from the pain.
“Drink,” it held out to her a small clay cup with a pinkish liquid.
Sydney peered into the cup and then squinted at the creature.
“It will help your pain,” it said and pushed the cup into her hand.
She took a small sip. It tasted like watermelon with a hint of vinegar.
“Drink, drink,” it folded and unfolded its long fingers.
She sipped a little more, and the pain in her knee began to subside. “What is it?” she asked.
“Many wonders,” it smiled and opened his hand to show a rough stone about the size of a robin’s egg. “Wonders to delight you, even fix where you are broken. Wonders to free you,” it said.
“What are you?” she asked.
It smiled again, cocking its head from side to side. “You want to dance?”
Sydney gaped, “You know?”
“I know,” it said. “Your sister is not near. No, no, far down the path now. Can’t hear you.”
“You’re lying,” she said, fear rising again.
“No lies, only truth,” it answered. “Look.” It cast the stone into the water, and the ripples split apart the forest it held. As the water calmed, a new view came to focus: Linnet trudging along at a furious pace farther up the path. She was saying something, though Sydney could not hear what. Linnet stopped and turned to a tree, beating on it until she covered her face with her hands in a silent lament.
“Linnet, Linnet!” Sydney called, though she knew it wasn’t real and her sister couldn’t hear her.
The creature blinked, grinned, and threw another stone into the water, and her sister broke apart into ripples.
“Why did you show me that?” she demanded.
“Truth,” the creature replied.
Sydney tried to stand again, but her knee gave way.
“I can help you,” it opened and closed its wings, casting its dark eyes toward the water.
The image was so small she had to inch to the edge of the water to see it, but as it came into view, she saw herself, dancing the lead in Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” – the one role she’d coveted since she first saw it performed ten years ago.
“Your future, if you desire,” it said.
“How?” She couldn’t take her eyes off the stage, her body in the throes of the fire dance. She could feel the awe of the audience and the power of her movement. This was life, the only way she knew to be alive. Everything else was worthless.
“Many wonders,” it said. “Trust me.”
Sydney looked at it. The creature cocked its head from side to side with a small grin, and folded and unfolded its long fingers.
“Trust you,” she said.
“But I don’t even know who – or what – you are,” she crossed her arms. The image of herself on stage in the bright plumes of the Firebird danced across her mind. Yet, just in the periphery, there was also the image of her sister, bent in anguish because she, Sydney, had chosen to turn away.
The creature leaned toward her and made an odd little hop from one side to another. “What not who, or who not what? Give me your name and I will give you your wish.” Its wings unfolded in angles and then tucked away again.
“Why do you need to know my name to help me?” she demanded.
“I believe you call it courtesy,” the creature replied. “Very well. Kyndegást, I am.” And it straightened out to its full height and gave a slight bow. It picked up another stone but, this time, put it in her hand. “Time to choose.”
“Choose what?” The stone felt rough and cold in her hand. It smelled of mineral. She rubbed it with her thumb.
“Your life,” Kyndegást said.
“Dancing is my life,” she answered without hesitation.
“Then the choice is made?” it asked.
“What is the other choice?”
Kyndegást grinned. “Sister.”
A rush of anger and grief flooded her. She wouldn’t even be here having to make this choice if Linnet hadn’t dragged her out into these woods to hike. But that wisp of memory returned, tugging at her mind: Linnet the firebird, her parents smiling and laughing, the crackle of burning wood, and the comforting smell of smoke. She ached for them; she could feel hot tears punctuate her chest. And then they were gone and only her sister remained, dancing. Her knee began to throb again.
“It’s not real!” she screamed. “None of this is real!” Sydney tried to cast the stone away, but her hand wouldn’t give it up.
Kyndegást clicked and rustled. “No?”
The pain overtook her, a wave of everything she had lost, everything she would lose, and she let out a great wail, echoing and resonating through the woods. The world darkened as the stone flew from her hand and broke open the water.
Sydney opened her eyes to see Linnet before her, keys in hand. She felt her knee; the pain was gone. “You want to go back, then go,” Linnet said.
Sydney looked back at the path behind her and then down the slope of the ravine. She could just make out a glint of light on water at the bottom.
“No,” she said. “I’ll stay.”