I wake, slowly, not where they left me but in a small clearing. A man is kneeling beside me, as though he’d been waiting for me.
“Where am I?” I mumble.
He thinks for a moment. “Not far from the last place you’d remember,” he says. “But on the other side of it. So in that way, you’ve come far. Far enough that there’s no going back.”
“Dead, as you say? Oh yes.” He sighs. “They made sure of that. I’m so sorry.”
My first inclination is to cry. Then I realise: I don’t know if I can. I still feel like I have a body. I feel cool grass beneath me. In some ways everything seems the same, but this place— lush, green, awash with light pouring through enormous trees thick with glossy leaves— it’s wrong. It is— was?— autumn, and everything was low and dark and tangled as they dragged me through it. When? Last night? What even is time now?
It’s so confusing that I do cry. Tears that seem so real— hot, wet, wringing the air from my lungs and throat, if that’s still possible. The man takes my hand. “This may be cold comfort,” he says, “but you can leave this place if you want, on to what your kind call heaven. I only saw you and thought you might like this realm. So I brought you here.”
“I want to go back.”
“That you cannot do.”
“My mam and da, my friends, even my stupid brother…”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
I sit up slowly, with his help. “So what happens now?”
“That,” he says, “is up to you.”
There were rumors for months, about the young people going missing. Among the usual talk of runaways and overdoses and suicides, especially after one of the bodies was found: It was like the old times, like they were going to throw him in the bog. Bet that’s where they’d find the others. Bunch of psychopaths out there.
But who could pay any mind to it? I had a whole life, taking the train to the university, coming home on the weekends whenever I wanted a decent meal or a load of wash done in peace. I was as careful as I always was— didn’t take drinks from boys I didn’t know, didn’t leave parties alone or let my friends do the same. But when I was home, I was less careful, sure. What could happen in a town like ours, where everyone knew everyone and strangers were greeted and subsequently nagged to death before they could get away with anything?
So: On the last day of my life, when my Friday afternoon Joyce lecture was cancelled, I decided to make a spur-of-the-moment visit home, packing up a week’s worth of laundry and my notes for my drama exam next week. Mam and Da were still at work and Declan was still at school, so I just texted everyone that I was home, dropped off all my stuff, and went out for a walk. The neighbors I ran into on the way were glad to see me— “Howya, Róisín, city girl home to say hello to the villagers, eh?” and I called back, “Ah, I’ll never be a city girl,” and they said, “That’s a good girl, off to the woods?” and I said, “Just for a bit, yeah.” Because they all remembered me as the girl with handfuls of autumn leaves, or a baby bunny or a bird with a broken wing, or a branch I was waving around and calling it my magic wand. That’s who I was.
I did go into the woods. That’s not how I met my end, not then. It was a splendid fall afternoon, still plenty of light shining through limbs with plenty of leaves, although the red and yellow borders were starting to emerge too. I didn’t want to disturb too much of anything, and hadn’t planned to stay long, but I did check to see if the cookie tin was still buried at the base of a rotted tree stump. (It was, although there wasn’t anything in it; I’d stopped hiding things there once Declan got old enough to mind his own business.) And then I just lay down in the clearing I’d always loved because of the way the branches of the trees along the edge of it met in the air, with space for blue sky but also the lacy crossover of the arms of the trees like blood vessels. That’s another thing. The sky was blue that day, unusually for mid-autumn; it had rained in the morning, but it was a fine sunny day in the afternoon. That’s the day I left the world, as beautiful an October day as you could have in my rain-drenched village. The ground was wet, and I rose, damp, with clots of dirt in my wool scarf and fir needles stuck to the soles of my boots.
But I did rise. I walked out of the woods and went home. Mam had already set my place for dinner and started my laundry, because that’s how much I was loved. Da wanted to watch some World War II documentary, and I watched it with him, because I thought it was the least I could do, and he looked so contented to be drinking his decaf tea after dinner and watching a film with his wife and kids.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is this: my life was good, and I knew it. I’m not one of those people who didn’t know how good my silly little life was until it flashed before my eyes— which it didn’t, for the record, at least not for me. I was grateful, late that night, to be home studying for my drama exam, to notice a craving for chips with curry gravy, to think it would be nothing to run down to the all-night chip shop. I didn’t think to text or leave a note. My life was too good for anything to happen.
I blink. “I didn’t say goodbye,” I say. “To anyone.”
He nods. “It must be terrible,” he says.
“What, you’ve never died?”
He shakes his head. “No.”
“So who are you?”
“We don’t have names as you do. Long ago your people called me Cernunnos, the source of life in these woods, from which all other things come.” He thinks for a moment. “You could call me Kerr, I suppose. And you are Róisín.”
My eyes widen. “So you’re one of the Old Ones. You’re real.”
He nods, stroking the top of my hand with his thumb.
“You— look human.” Sort of, I add, to myself. There’s a grace in his long limbs, a fire in his green eyes, that doesn’t seem human at all. He’s dressed simply, just in soft, earthy linen tunic and trousers.
“I take on many forms. This one I thought might be familiar to you.”
“So— was what happened— were the rumors true, then? Was this for you ?”
“No, no,” he says hastily. “I don’t desire sacrifice. Everything I do speaks life. Twisted people, who misunderstand the nature of life and death, did this to you. Please believe me when I say I take no pleasure in what happened to you. But I wanted to invite you to be here— I saw your love of these woods, and I thought you might like to stay here.”
“But I could go to heaven?”
“Why would I stay here, then?”
He shrugs. “I will be honest with you,” he says. “I am lonely. Souls pass through here, just like always, but no one wants to stay, even for a while. I have the spirits of the animals, the trees, but human spirits have always intrigued me. Your kind does not love the woods the way you once did. You move on.”
“I can leave when I want?”
He pauses. “Yes,” he says, “now. If you accept anything from me, though, you must stay. Forever.”
I tilt my head. “Heaven is— heaven? Granddad and my dog Toby and angels and clouds and everything?”
“Not exactly, but near enough. What you imagine. The end of all suffering, the beginning of all bliss, reunion with the souls of those who've gone before.”
“What do you have that I would want, then?”
He looks out between the trees. He still hasn’t let go of my hand. “I can give you power,” he says. “My power.” He exhales and a breeze passes through the trees. “My power is not diminished by sharing it.”
“What would I do with that?”
“You can’t bring yourself back to life. But you can do a lot of other things. You can have experiences you didn’t get to have as a mortal.”
“Fly, that kind of thing?”
“If you want.”
But I sense he’s holding out on me. “What else?”
Kerr holds my hand a little tighter. His hand is warm. Feels warm. Is warm still— ? How am I thinking, feeling, seeing? Do I— yes, there it is, somehow the smell of rain mingled with the creosolic scent of fire. Is he doing that? Could I do that?
“Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this,” he says, “but I have the power of vengeance on those who violate my woods. Even now I rarely take it. Others are better positioned to carry out judgment. But if you stay here, with me, you can avenge yourself.”
“How would I do that?”
“However you want. It’s the only thing heaven will deny you. The one thing I can offer you that they can’t.”
“What can they offer me that you can’t, then?”
Kerr smiles, a little sadly. “Do you see anyone else here?” he says. “The ones you love will cross over to the place you call heaven, most likely. It’s just me here.”
“Aren’t there other… Old Ones, spirits, whatever?”
He looks down, still holding my hand. Are there hands like this in heaven— hands of handsome men to hold? Or is all that too earthly? I only got to hold the hands of stupid boys at school, exchange a few sloppy kisses. And is he cheating a bit, really, his hand so warm— still? Is warm still real?
“There were,” he said. “Most of us went to the Undying Lands long ago. Hundreds of years, your kind would say, as people turned away from the old ways.” He pauses. “I thought I wanted to stay. Watch over the woods, shepherd the spirits of mortals passing through. The others begged me to come, but here I stayed.”
He lets go then, and stands up. His feet are bare, I realize, and pale against the bright green mossy ground. “So,” he says, surveying all the life before us— the trees and the moss, the birds chasing each other between branches, even the water I can hear— I’m hearing, still, so strange— tumbling over rocks a short distance away. “Róisín. Life after life is here for you. The choice is yours.”
He looks back at me then. “So?”
TW: violence. I tried very hard not to make it too graphic while still being fairly clear about what transpired. But you might skip this chapter if you're upset by any kind of violence. I'm dropping Chapter 5 right away also so you have something new to read even if you would prefer to avoid this chapter. Thanks much for your bearing with me.
Maybe I didn’t say anything because Mam had seen one of those terrible handbills just the other day, had mentioned it in passing after dinner, after Declan had gone to take the rubbish out. “I don’t know if it’s some kind of a joke or what,” she said, shuddering. “On one hand it all just seems like a lot of rumors, whispers in the dark kind of thing. But then there was the one like the others taped to the letter box down the road, you know. Like the ones I’ve seen on the Internet.”
“Ah, it’s probably just a bunch of weirdos copying what they’ve seen on Reddit,” I said.
“Can’t say it’s not a little unsettling,” Da commented. “This business of YOU WILL PAY IN YOUR CHILDREN’S BLOOD— ”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Mam snapped, “we’ve all just eaten.”
“Well, you brought it up,” Da pointed out.
“Anyway.” She sighed. “What do you suppose it means, anyway? ‘Sins against the land.’ It could mean anything.”
“Which is why it’s likely just a bunch of kids having a really creepy laugh,” I retorted. God, I thought I knew it all. I was off to university, wasn’t I? The real dangers were from staggering across the road after a few too many drinks or getting stuck in a bedroom at a party with a guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer, weren’t they? Real threats. Not serial killers with a grudge against the whole of the country on behalf of… the grass and the cows? Some political thing like twenty or thirty years ago, Real IRA or some shite? Who knew? And who could be afraid of something so vague?
Ah, she’ll just worry. I’ll just be right back. Chips with curry gravy! Let’s go! And I blithely slipped on my coat, grabbed a handful of change from the little blue bowl on the table near the door, and headed out in the dark towards the High Street.
I never got my chips. They grabbed me— two, maybe three. I couldn’t tell you anything about them— what they looked or sounded like. They wore balaclavas and hats and knocked me right out, anyway. And by the time I came to, it was basically too late anyway. They were holding me down, on the forest floor— I knew where I was, which maybe made it more painful. They let me scream. They knew no one could hear me. The last thing I remember of my beautiful woods, as I knew them when I lived, was an enormous knife glinting in the moonlight. I blacked out soon afterwards. I didn’t have a chance for a proper farewell to anything. I died alone, in the dark, in the woods, no one waiting to carry a final word to everything and everyone I loved.
And now here I am, in these woods between worlds. This— what, ancient god I suppose, who looks like an artsy fella from university but also doesn’t, who looks old in a way I can’t figure out but I believe, who holds a power I don’t yet understand— offers me the power to take back the ground that was soaked in my blood.
If I give up heaven, of course. If I stay here with him, forever.
Forever is a long time.
“You said, if I accept anything from you, I have to stay,” I say, slowly. “What does that mean? What would I— accept from you?”
Kerr smiles then, laughs a little, for the first time. It’s a beautiful smile, and why wouldn’t it be? If you’re an ancient god “taking on a form,” as he put it, why wouldn’t you use your seemingly considerable power to give yourself a nice one? But that same power lies behind that same smile, the power to keep me in this world or send me on to the next. “Well,” he says, “for example. You no longer have a mortal body. But in order for you to continue to act, to move, your— consciousness, as you might call it, only knowing what it is to act within a body, continues to generate the sense of a body for you, which means that if you look down…” He trails off, in what I realise is a gentlemanly way when I do look down and notice that I am naked.
“Ah,” I say.
“So you might like to have clothing, food, what have you, before too long. Until you fully come into your own power, you might need my help.”
“I see.” Almost involuntarily I’m curling into myself, noting that even dying hasn’t done anything for my thighs.
“You’re going to be here a long time. I mean to tell you the truth.”
“Oh, am I, then? I haven’t decided.”
“If you decide to stay. Of course.”
But I remember dying. I remember the terrible fear that they— whoever they are, and how will I know who they are?— would do something worse than kill me. I remember how the beautiful woods had gone so cold in the night; I remember the awful sensation of my skin being separated from itself, the blood running over the same ground in which I’d played as a child, hidden and dreamed as a teenager. This place was— is— was, who knows anymore— mine as much as it’s anyone’s. I want it back. And I want to stop whoever did this from doing it to someone else.
“I didn’t see the people who did this,” I say, resting my chin on my knees. “I don’t know anything at all about them. I don’t know if the other disappearances that have happened are related to mine. And I don’t even know where to start. What would I— we, I guess— do?”
“I’ve been following them. I don’t know much about them yet. But I’ll learn. And so will you, as you grow in power. You’ll be able to see back into the mortal world, and eventually move through it— not in a body, but still with the ability to act.”
“I have to ask— are you sure? Because, like you said, I don’t see anyone else here. How do you know it… works this way?”
“Oh, believe me, I know.” He smiles again, this time sadly. “I’ve done it before. Long ago.”
“Ah. You’re lonely.”
“I told you as much. I said I’d tell you the truth.”
So: on to heaven, or in this world with him. Onward to forgiveness, maybe even to forgetting what happened to me, to one kind of eternal reward. Or staying here and remembering, for myself and for the land and for whoever else they’ve gone after or might go after in the days to come.
I don’t want to forgive. I want to burn something down. I want them to know, in their dying moments, what I didn’t know: who I am and why I’m ending them.
I look up at Kerr, who looks like I’ve lost him in thought for a moment, I suppose about whatever happened the last time he carried out this particular experiment. Well, I imagine I’ll have plenty of time to hear that story.
“Can you cover me up a bit, then?” I ask him.
“As I’ll ever be.”
He considers me for a moment, then nods slowly. A warm cloth, the same material as what he’s wearing, comes down around my shoulders like a sheet fresh from the line on a summer’s day. I pull it close to me. It smells just like the fresh, dry scent of my clothes from the line out back. My life. I’ll never know how to stop missing it.
We don’t say anything for a long while. I watch his face, his delicate, sharp features softening slightly. He stands and crosses the clearing, coming to a bush I don’t remember seeing before. He touches a branch and produces a small white flower with the tips of his fingers, then plucks it and brings it to me, and tucks it behind my ear.
“Thank you,” he says.
In the coming days— because what even are days, now, after I asked him to cover me in my nakedness and accepted a flower I watch him draw forth from nothing, now that forever has come— everything nevertheless takes time, things I never would have thought about until they happened, things large and small. I’m not hungry much, and Kerr says I’ll eventually lose even the little appetite I have, but for now, I remember needing to eat, and I do, small loaves of bread and pieces of fruit he brings and watches me nibble without saying anything. I still get tired, though unpredictably so, sleeping in the open through sunny late mornings and sitting awake under crescent moons. I don’t know where he goes when I sleep, when I lie down on the floor of the forest the way I did on the last day of my life and salt the ground with my tears every time I remember the world. He does come when I cry, and sits with me until I fall asleep, but he doesn’t do anything else, and then he leaves again.
I learn about this world. “Imagine,” he said one day, leading me down a path I’d never noticed when I was alive, “the woods you knew, but unspoilt, and everything in perfect balance. An ideal, a form. That’s where we are.” He knelt down and ran his fingers through the dirt, and held up a handful to me. “Look— decaying leaves, insects. Not a world without death, in its way. But a world where death is a rebalancing force, part of the cycle. Nothing to be feared.”
“Are there— seasons, weather?”
He released the dirt back to the ground. “There can be,” he says. “I’ve been holding things in a mild pattern to help you get comfortable. We’ll resume the usual way soon.”
I looked around, everything still so lush and glossy green. “It was autumn when I— ”
“I’m— it could be autumn.”
He nodded. “Might want to dress yourself a little more warmly,” he suggested. “Try it.”
“What would you want to be wearing? Close your eyes. What do you remember?”
I closed my eyes. I remembered my cherry Doc Martens that crunched dead leaves in that pleasing way. I remembered my woolly scarf from school that itched just a little if I wound it too tight, my field hockey hoodie, my nice stretchy skinny jeans.
I opened them. The woods were flooded with more light, between the half-bare branches of the trees, and light was a pale watery yellow among the scarlet leaves. And there I was, before the ancient forest god, in my old field hockey hoodie. I had to laugh, then, and he laughed with me, if only to be polite, because I think the toga-type thing I’d fashioned out of that sheet was more his style. And it was all so familiar, and I felt the balance he’d spoken about returning and noticed the beauty, even of death, even coming for this world.
But beautiful as it is, I miss my life. I can’t bear to think about my family, my friends— even something as silly as my little room in student housing, the walls still covered in cards from my birthday and the fairy lights I’d strung up so excitedly when I first moved in. I still find myself caught off-guard by the sorrow of it sometimes, and I cry, and Kerr comes to me, probably wishing I was happier.
“I’m sorry,” I say through my tears, one night under a full moon.
“It’s all right,” he says. He’s silent for a long moment before he adds, “It was with Nuala as it is with you. My former companion.”
I sit up. “She was...like me?”
“Human, yes. But in her time, she was deeply misunderstood and mistrusted. She was killed for her faith in the old ways. A witch, she was, you might say. And she had a child, the father of whom was unknown. She died calling on me, so I answered her, and brought her here and offered her much the same terms I did you. She came into her power very rapidly— she was practiced, you understand. I led her child into the woods one day, disguised as his pony, and with her little son out of the way, I watched her burn her entire village to the ground.” He pauses then, and smiles. “And did it several more times, when she saw other young women accused— rightly or not— of what was called witchcraft.”
“You look like you— enjoyed that.”
“Oh, watching Nuala work was a sight to see. There was such righteousness in it. Her death was a hideous thing, and she had lived such a gentle life. Her only crime was a refusal to obey the rules of hypocrites and weaklings. It had been centuries since I’d exercised my own power so substantially in the world, with so few of your kind calling on me and many of the other Old Ones already gone, and what she did— she put fear into the hearts of those who would be her enemies, or those of women like her. They never liked women like her, of course, and they don’t now. But they leave them in peace. Nuala did that.”
“It sounds like she was— happy here, though.”
“At first, she wept, like you. She missed her son terribly. I wanted her to be happy here, and I helped her see how quickly she could come to wield her power. I encouraged her to use it. But her heart was broken when her son finally passed through here. He lived a long life, and forgot the old ways— he was so young when she died. He barely remembered her. He chose to go on.” He stops for a long moment, and looks away from me. “I offered to give her another child.”
Ah. Well, the source of life, as he called himself. I won’t say I don’t wonder about the mechanics of it for a moment, but I only ask, “Did you?”
He shakes his head. “She was inconsolable,” he says. “And she went to the Undying Lands shortly thereafter. I missed her terribly for ages and ages. We’d made a home together. And I didn’t think she’d go. As I said, you cannot leave here once you’ve chosen to stay. To go to the Undying Lands— it’s as close to death as our kind can come. It’s not so much leaving as dying— to be separated from everything such that your consciousness fades away after a very long time. And that is where she’s gone.”
I reach for him then. I don’t know why. He’s been so careful not to touch me, not since I first got here; I’m not sure if I should touch him. I only brush his hair away from his face, my hand grazing the tip of his ear. He looks back at me, his face half-illuminated by the moonlight, half-hidden in shadow.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“That’s kind of you. But it’s been a long time, by anyone’s count.” He extends his hand to me. “You should come inside to sleep now. You’ll be cold before you know it.”
“Come.” He takes me by the hand and pulls me up from the ground, and leads me through the dark. As we walk I can hear rabbits leaping out of our way, a few birds rustling the remaining leaves in the trees. Silver light slices through the canopy here and there, leaving him sometimes illuminated, sometimes in the dark.
We arrive at a small stone house— not the kind of dwelling I’d have imagined for a forest god. Maybe the kind of house a seventeenth-century witch would have liked, though. Maybe the kind of house where she thought she’d get a second chance at the life she lost. My heart hurts— God, but it feels like I still have one— for Nuala, her consciousness lost to time; for Kerr, watching over the woods alone for all this time.
“Come in,” he says, opening the door for me.
I step inside. With a pass around the space he starts a fire, lights a few candles. It’s spare, but clean and bright as the flames begin to glow.
“You stayed here,” I say, unwinding my scarf. “You didn’t go to the Undying Lands— not with the other Old Ones, not with Nuala. Why?”
He nods. “That’s true,” he allows. “I’ve chosen to stay rather than— fade away, I suppose.” He looks around the room for a moment. “I still love the woods. I never wanted to leave, never wanted to forget.”
He reaches for my scarf, hangs it from a peg on the wall. “I won’t say I didn’t think about going with Nuala,” he admits. “Although it pained me greatly to let her go, I did.” And he reaches for me then, smoothing my hair back from my face as I’d done for him earlier. “Maybe in hopes that I might not be alone forever.”
Before I can protest— that I’ve barely come into any power, that I don’t know how I’ll begin to be as powerful as Nuala— he bends down and kisses me, lightly, but full of the warmth I hadn’t noticed until now that I needed.
“Would you lie with me, then?” he asks.
My right hand flies to my throat, where my scarf was until a moment ago. “Ah,” I say, uselessly. It’s a good question— if it’s really a question. My hand rests at my throat. I’m here, alone with him, forever, because of the cut in my throat (who did this, where are they, I will find them and end them, I still demand, silently, a never-ending demand in the back of my head), in the body I left in the world. In this world, in this— body, as it were— am I still the girl who always shied away home at the end of the night? Oh, I better go. Curfew, you know. Or, later, Got an exam in the morning. Early train. You know how it is.
He notices, I think. He lays his hand on my hand, there at the base of my neck. “You stayed here to come into your power, Róisín,” he says. “Don’t give it up. Not even to me.”
I move my hand away; he doesn’t move his. Now his hand is there in that soft and terrible place. He cups his hand, so gently— his long fingers reaching up to stroke the edge of my earlobe. He bends to kiss me again.
“Wait,” I say.
He stops. “Yes?”
I take— it feels like breathing. It feels so much like breathing. He’s waiting, with infinite— really— patience. I offered to give her another child, he said. The— way of things, I suppose, can’t be that different. And I’m not ready to think about it, now, any more than I was when I was alive. Even if he’s so beautiful here before me, the light in his long soft hair turned from silver to gold as we moved from moonlight to firelight. Even if some part of me does want to see the rest of the form he’s taken, as he says, or his other forms.
“I will,” I say, “but— I’m tired, and I’m scared, and I’ve been scared. And I don’t know what to do— not now, and not when I’ll have to— go back, somehow, into the world— but certainly not now.”
Kerr nods. “I want you to consider, Róisín,” he says, “that in this moment you’re coming into that power. Here you are, telling me what you want, what you need, what you don’t know. Remember that. Your desire is going to drive what you’re able to do in a way it never could before. You are nothing but your desire now. And it is a terrifying thing at first. But when you fully embrace it, nothing and no one will stop you. Not even me.
“That’s why you stayed, remember,” he concludes. “So that your will would not dissipate. So that your force can still act in the world. Never apologise for it.”
But because I remember being nothing but barely more than a girl, because I remember laughing at dirty jokes with the other girls on the school bus after a field hockey match while I wore this same hoodie, I look down, I stuff my hands in my pocket for a moment. “What about you?” I say. “You’ve said you don’t use your power in the world much anymore, that you can share your power with me. What’s your desire?”
He smiles then. “Ah, well,” he says, “I already have it, you see. I have a companion again. And because I could only have a companion ready to grow in her power— because I know, when you are ready, your desire will move in the world again— my joy is just in your being here. I promise you that.” He pauses. “Still. I’ve not shared a bed in— ages. And while you are still growing in your power, I can care for you, until you can manifest your own heat and shelter, until you don’t even feel the cold anymore. And you’re a lovely woman, and I’d enjoy being close to you.”
My face remembers how to feel hot. No one ever spoke to me that way. No boy from school could begin to know how to say those words. And I know that there’s a gulf between worlds, and that Kerr was never a boy and that I’ll never again be that girl on the bus. And to lie down with him, no matter what happens afterwards, is another way I’m saying it out loud. That my power was taken away, out of my body.
But it will never be taken again.
I nod, slowly. “All right.”
And we do lie together. It’s all we do, then. I let him see me again the way he found me, the way I came into the world I once knew and the way I came into this one. I remember my body the way it was, more vulnerable than I ever could have believed— and when I see him uncovered, looking more vulnerable, too, than ancient, I see between us, I think, what he sees. I see the power. I feel it when he kisses me, which I let him do then, and for the first time, I understand: I am pure desire.
I sleep beside him that night, and every night after that. And in the morning, when I wake and find him gone, I look out the window and see a magnificent stag, tall, his amber coat somehow also shimmering silver in the early morning sun. And of course I realise, when I look into the stag’s bottomless eyes, that he isn’t gone at all.
In the days that follow I begin to sit beside him and see back into the world, which I can’t even do at first— not because I’m not an immortal god, but because it just hurts too much. It’s too hard to watch people doing the things I did— studying in the library, waiting for the train, eating chips with curry bloody gravy— and not feel keenly how I’ll never do those things again. But the pain pricks at something else inside me, something besides the grief I feel at the loss of my life: I still have my desire. And I will use it to end the people who did this to me.
It still hurts, though. Still, I can do it for longer than a few seconds now. We start with easy things— we watch people in the park in the city, groups of friends hiking in the woods a few hours away. He just opens up a little piece of sky and there it is, the world I knew and loved in a maddening miniature, and we zoom in and out like drones. I’m not sure yet if I can do it on my own. I don’t know if I want to, really.
“I don’t want to see— home, or anything,” I tell him one day, as we approach the edge of a hill, a spot where we do some of our best watching.
He nods. “It would be too hard,” he agrees. “Maybe someday, when you’re ready.”
“Can you see them? My family?”
“I could,” he says, “but what would I tell you that you don’t know? Surely you know how much you’re loved.”
I lie back in the grass, letting myself feel the chill of it on this cool afternoon. Strange that I don’t cry at that. I know I’ll never be able to tell them I know that, that the best thing I can do now is spare another family from feeling what they feel.
“Are they— all right?”
Kerr doesn’t say anything for a long time. He closes his eyes for a moment, then thinks, then moves nearer to me and lays a hand on my forehead, smoothing the hair back from my face.
“As well as can be expected, I’d say,” he says.
I nod. He’s right. Knowing more would be too hard. I know enough.
“All right.” I sit up. “Show me the people who did this to me.”
“Today’s the day, then?”
“I think so.”
“As I’ll ever be.”
He leans away from me for a moment, considering. Then he kisses my forehead, sits back down beside me, and takes my hand.
“I’ll show you,” he says. “It’s not going to be easy. But from here you’ll decide what you want to do with them. I’ll help you as much as I can, but in the end, the decision to act really should be yours.”
“I understand. But I believe in the righteousness of your cause. I want to see you have your power back, and then some.” He squeezes my hand.
I squeeze his back.
“Show me,” I say.
The further I get with this fic, the less satisfied I am with it. But, if nothing else, I finish what I started.
And I see them, just hanging around someone’s garage. I don’t know them, which comes as a strange relief. They’re just mangy, ascetic weirdos— terrorists, I remind myself, killers— three of them like I remember, making more of those creepy handbills on Macbooks covered in stickers for Zero Population Growth and Decommission Sellafield and God knows what else. They should just be the intense, protest-going types, except they’re actually doing it— killing young people one by one. Mostly girls, but a boy or two as well from the look of things.
How do I know Kerr found the right people? They have pictures. And trophies. I see myself the way I left the world, the scream cut from my bleeding throat, my eyes open. I see my school scarf that they must have tugged from my neck— the one in the world, not the strange copy I instinctively grab on to and will later hang on the wall of the house where I sleep each night, now, after Kerr shows me how to hold fire in my hands without being burned or sweep a cool breeze across a stretch of land. I might be mounted on the wall, along with a dozen others, like deer heads— girls who look just like the others on the field hockey bus or boys who look like ones daydreaming in the library— but it’s different now.
Still. I hate to look for long. In fact, I bury my face in Kerr’s shoulder for a moment.
“Don’t look away, Róisín,” he says. “You’ll want to see this. You’ll want to see how they collected you and the others, their utter lack of remorse for spilling innocent blood. You’ll need to hear them talking about doing it again.” He scratches the top of my head gently. “Look up now.”
“Shall we go out tonight, then?” one of them says.
“You don’t think it’s too soon?” asked another.
“I think we have to keep going. Keep their attention.”
“I wish we’d figure out something to do with the bodies. They’ll be able to connect the dots eventually. Forensics and all that.”
“It’s important that the bodies be found, Kevin,” the first one says, who seems to be the leader, rolling his eyes. “Can’t very well throw them in a river never to be seen again. No impact.”
If I could still be sick to my stomach, I would. I wonder what did happen to the body I left behind. Kerr rubs the back of my neck. I’m sure he knows. But I don’t ask.
“The longer we can keep going, the better,” the third one says. “Because of course they’ll connect the dots. We need our message to sink in, that in a way, these young people are already lost to climate change and endless war and overpopulation. They just don’t believe it until it turns up on their doorsteps is all.”
“They’re mad,” I whisper, although I know they can’t hear me.
Kerr nods. “They need to be stopped,” he says. “Are you ready to do it?”
“I think I have to be, don’t I? From the sound of things they’re ready to— do it again, tonight.”
Kerr, crouched on the balls of his feet beside me, rocks forward for a moment. “A storm, that’s what we need,” he muses. “A sudden one, as they drive through the woods on the edge of town.”
“They won’t be expecting it,” I agree.
He looks over at me. A smile, small at first, spreads over his face. “Fire,” he repeats. “That was Nuala’s weapon of choice too.”
“It seems fitting.”
We watch them print up their handbills and discuss the relative merits of nearby towns for snatching their next victims, right under my picture and those of the others. We watch them sharpen the blade that cut me, and again I want to be sick, but I make myself watch, and the feeling of sickness turns first to rage and then to a resolve hard enough to snap the blade. And Kerr and I assemble a plan, and then we wait.
It gets cold, then dark. I remember my duffel coat with the red wooden toggle buttons, and then it’s around me. I watch Kerr take on the form of a rough-legged hawk, becoming for the moment a bird of prey: huge white wings tipped in black, bright yellow feet ready to sweep up the unsuspecting in sharp, thick talons. He flies off, nodding to me, and while it’s not the first time I’ve seen him shift form, it’s the first time I’ve seen him shift into something that kills.
When he returns, a storm has gathered behind him on the horizon, still too far off for the psychopaths to notice. He lands beside me, dropping a field mouse from his grasp, and shifts back into a man. And we wait some more, waiting to dive back into the world.
While I was alive, my sins were trifling and predictable. Went farther with a fella than I meant to. Snapped at someone at home for some reason that didn’t matter ten minutes later. Maybe gossiped a bit. I was no saint, to be sure, but I tried to be decent and was successful enough, most of the time, I suppose. Wasn’t I offered heaven, after all? But I turned it down— a sin in and of itself, I imagine— and as I watch the man who killed me pile into their creepy van, it’s not lost on me that, if it matters, I’m about to commit premeditated murder. A far leap, to be sure, from speculating on whether or not Fiona and Sean from down the road were making out behind the pitch after rugby practice.
But I can’t deny that there’s a sense thrumming through me like electricity reaching every nerve ending in what once was a body. Even my posture suggests it; I’m leaning forward as we prepare to tear a hole in the sky and land in the world again. Kerr has added a long black coat to his usual ensemble and his green eyes are bright.
“Ready?” he asks, and despite the black coat and the seriousness of his tone, there’s a little smile playing at the corner of his lips.
“Yes,” I say.
The sky before us opens and then we’re crouched beside a massive dead tree. I’m— home, in the world, and yet not. It’s pouring rain, but I don’t get wet. My boots don’t sink in the mud and leave deep prints behind. And I see Kerr glow with a barely perceptible jade green light.
He murmurs a few words in an unfamiliar language, like Irish but nothing I recognize from cramming for the Leaving Cert, laying his hand on the tree trunk. Then he says to me, “It’s ready.”
“Good,” I say.
And we wait until we hear the van approaching. When it does, Kerr closes his eyes.
Lightning. It strikes the tree, which falls, clean and huge, onto the van, which skids and squeals to a stop.
“They’re all yours,” Kerr says. “Give me your hand.”
I hold it out to him. He holds it for a moment. I’m reminded of when he found me, waking up to my hand in his. I wonder what he thought— if he thought it was a long shot, if he knew somehow that I’d say yes and stay, to come into my own power. What’s your desire? I’d asked him. I already have it, he said.
He lets go of my hand.
I open it. A small fireball dances in my palm. He gazes at me with a look I can’t quite interpret. Maybe a little sad, remembering Nuala. Maybe pride, to see his— our— power moving in the world. And maybe more than a little excitement. His eyes, while steady, have never looked brighter. He’s still not quite smiling. But he’s encouraging me nonetheless. And I’m ready.
I walk, taller somehow, out of the woods on the side of the road. The tree has shattered the windscreen of the van and dazed my killers, their faces bloodied from broken glass. They’re shaking their heads, muttering, “What the fuck?”
I leave no trace on the earth. I cup the fire in both my hands as I approach. And when I’m close enough, I draw my hands apart until the flame is the size of a globe. And then I hurl it at the fuel door.
“What the fuck is that?” one of them screams.
What is it? Justice. Protection. Revenge. The last fucking word on the subject.
The van bursts into flames.
I watch for a minute.
I turn back to Kerr, who’s been watching from where the tree had stood. His look is clearer now, the green glow more pronounced now. He’s grinning.
“Nicely done,” he says.
“I thought so.”
He pulls me close and kisses me— not gently. With urgency.
And now I’m ready.
“Take me home,” I say.
And we dive back through the sky as the men who killed me burn, and the young people of the next town over sleep soundly. And when we return, to the edge of the cliff where we stalked our quarry, we are still for a long moment.
And then I reach up and push the coat off his shoulders.
“Here,” I say. “Now.”
He kisses me again, the urgency no less great.
For all of forever I don’t want to forget this night. I have vanquished my enemies and now my life everlasting can truly begin. So let me begin: It’s dark, and the moon is full and pale gold. The sky is clear and stirred through with stars, individual ones and tangled clouds of them like the palest silver streams. Kerr was right, that I’d eventually stop feeling the cold. This I notice when I unbutton my duffel coat with the red wooden toggle buttons, when I unwind my scarf, when I let him lift off my hoodie.
He stops then.
“What is it?” I ask.
“It isn’t the first time,” he murmurs. “That I’m seeing you this way. Not really. But it feels that way, doesn’t it?”
“I wish this was the first time,” I admit. “Not the way it actually happened.”
“Let’s remember it this way,” he says. “The first time I see your true form, free and without fear.” He pauses. “Would you like to see mine?”
“I— guess that depends,” I say slowly. “I don’t know that I’d know what to do with, say, a bear.”
He laughs, unbuttoning his shirt. “Nothing like that,” he says. “It will be familiar enough.”
“All right, then,” I say, tentatively, smoothing my hair back over my shoulders and unbuttoning my jeans. Getting the bottom half of one’s clothes off is always less sexy, isn’t it— well, I’ve come into my power now, haven’t I, so I close my eyes for a moment and do a nice swift magic undressing. Then I open them. “Show me.”
He closes his eyes for a moment and breathes in. The transformation is indeed subtle, at first. The barely-there jade green glow returns; his hair shimmers in the moonlight. And then I see the antlers, graceful, imposing but seeming light on his head. I see patterns under the skin of his limbs and torso, like tattoos but ones that have always been part of him, abstract and graceful like birch bark. And then the leafy, flowering vines that mingle with the locks of hair and weave themselves into a circlet at the base of the antlers for a crown. And there appears also a ring on his finger, set with an enormous emerald. And finally he is naked, and he is the embodiment of all that lives and dies: plant, animal, human.
It hardly needs to be said that nothing is as I imagined it ever would be. But my courage, my strength, continues to roar from within. I am unsure. But I am unafraid.
He steps towards me, removes the ring from his finger, and holds it over my hand. “You’ve come into your power,” he says. “From now on you rule with me. We are equals and, if you desire it, companions. And if you desire it, lovers.”
“Yes,” I say. “I do.”
He slides the ring on my finger. It’s warm, heavy. I think of marriage vows: Til death do us part. Death has already come for me. I am not promising until death; I am promising death itself, life itself, everything there is between the worlds.
We kiss, gently this time, just like a bride and groom with a delicate granny watching.
And then I step back. I still don’t know what to do with myself. I kneel before him, but he shakes his head, lifts my chin with his fingers. “Not yet,” he says. “There’s all the time for you to give me pleasure, and I thank you for offering it. But let me please you first this time. I want you to remember this time with nothing but joy.”
I nod. “All right.”
“Good.” He lifts me to my feet again, and then he kneels before me and begins to kiss me, between my thighs, and gives me pleasure such that all I can is run my hands through his hair and murmur soft cries. And when I can feel— oh, of everything I’ve ever known, in the last world or this one, how I feel this— how warm and ready I am, my knees softening and buckling with thrills of joy, I tumble into the grass, wet with cool dew as though the land itself is ready for him to work magic upon it. He smiles— satisfied, accomplished.
“Come, then,” he says, “if you will. Take yourself astride me so you can move as you like.”
“I will,” I gasp, still catching my breath— it still feels like breathing, even now— and I do settle myself on top of him and take him inside me, and the sound I make at the feeling of him reaching me reverberates through the woods, stirring birds from their rest and sending a shiver through the trees.
“Is it well with you, then?” he asks, but I can tell from his smile, verging on a smirk, that he knows perfectly well.
“Uh huh,” I manage. “You?”
“You can do no wrong,” he says.
“All right,” I say, and together we rock in the wet grass until he pushed himself upright and arranges me on his lap, and I wrap my legs around his waist, narrow but strong. He’s lithe, but solid, unbreakable, bending around me like one of the birch branches his limbs have come to resemble. And together we become a singular miracle, twisted but gently so, holding on to each other’s backs glowing silver in the moon that’s risen higher in the pitch-black sky.
I don’t want to let go. I tell him as much.
“Hold on as long as you need.”
I push his hair aside and kiss his shoulder, smooth and warm under my lips. He moans softly, then kisses the side of my neck.
“Róisín, my companion, my desire, my queen,” he says. “Are you pleased, then?”
Am I? Well. Somewhere in the world there is still a hole where I once was. Maybe someday I’ll be able to face that. Maybe someday I’ll be able to move into my home, around my family, and show them somehow that I hope they know how much I loved them.
On the other hand, who knows how many lives I saved? At least one. Maybe more. And more to the point, my death did not go unanswered. If there has to be a hole in the world, it’s a hole filled with fire and recompense.
And let’s not overlook the fact that I’ve come home in a way I never would have thought possible. On the last day of my life, after all, my house wasn’t the first place I went— it was the woods, bright with the colors of autumn, cool with a breeze, ready to welcome me as they always had. I’m here to rule over them now, to find ways to protect them and those who enter them. Kerr’s power will move in the world again, and mine now, too, and together we won’t have to resort to murder and terror to protect the land.
And I am not alone. And Kerr isn’t alone. And we have the rest of forever to pleasure each other, and lie with each other, and move our power through the world. Maybe have a family. Maybe change the world I once loved so much for the better.
So: Am I pleased, then?
I kiss him. “Yes.”
He smiles, and lays his hand on my forehead and smooths some hair back. When he moves his hand away, I can feel the vines growing around my hair as they did around his, circling to form a crown like his.
“Let me take you home?” he says.
He unwinds himself from around me, gets to his feet, and lifts me up in his arms.
“Oh, really?” I tease.
“I’ve always thought this human custom was charming,” he says. “But you can walk if you’d rather. Or fly. I know you’re hoping to try that.”
“Some other time.” I lay my head on his shoulder.
“As it pleases you.”
And he carries me home, and lays me down in bed, and we lie with each other, in our true forms, under the full moon, there in the woods between worlds.
If you enjoyed this fic and particularly this chapter, you might also enjoy "the forest and what I found there" by roosebolton. I'm fairly confident in saying that my concept for this fic was original, but I cannot say that it is the only fic on AO3 featuring sexual relations between a supernatural forest creature and what I presume is a human being. The "true form" Kerr takes on here is similar to what's described in "the forest and what I found there" and more broadly with traditional depictions of the deity Cernunnos. So if that's your jam, by all means, get on over and check out roosebolton's lovely tone poem/fic.
Oh, and if you made it this far, thanks, because, wow, this was way longer than I thought it would be and didn't come out quite the way I planned. So I hope you enjoyed.