Biting my trewand pen, beating my selfe for spite,
'Foole,' said my Muse to me, 'looke in thy heart and write.'
Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella
The best thing about being in the forest is she can’t see the sky for the trees. Burrs snag in her hair and crunch underfoot, and nothing is blue except her dress, rolled up above her knees and streaked with mud.
Every time she pauses to let Celia catch up, Celia gasps and says “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I thought he’d never --”
Now it happens again. Rosalind presses a finger to her lips. A bird is cawing, calling, whirring nearby like clockwork. Hush, hush. What else does the forest say?
It’s time to start again. The fireworks, this time. There’s no sky but you can see the fireworks. A few small branches shatter from the head and spin in midair before they fall. You are covered in ash and bark, and the forest is so warm, you do not need your little bed stacked high with pillows.
Good. It’s far away from where you are now.
The air is thick and almost wet with heat.
Rosalind can see the sky from the forest, it turns out. The sky is crisp and golden as a leaf. She has an apple in one pocket, a can of ginger beer in the other. Her cousin is trailing behind, singing unconnected verses of different songs. “Don’t you know any all the way through?” Rosalind asks, finally. She pops the can open and leans against a tree as she takes a slurp, waiting for Celia to catch up. Somewhere in the distance, an owl is calling.
“I get bored,” Celia says. Rosalind knows this, of course she knows this.
“How can you get bored of a song,” Rosalind says. “When you haven’t even reached the best part yet! A song is like an apple. It’s like taking one bite and throwing it away because you’ve tasted it. It’s like reading two chapters of a book and then giving up because you’ve guessed the ending. You have no soul, Celia.”
“Look at who’s tired out now,” Celia says, and kicks at a pile of satisfyingly crunchy brown leaves that are between them with more strength than either of them were expecting. Rosalind coughs and covers her face.
“Steady,” she says. She looks around. Not a suitable camping site. “Come on,” she sighs. “We need to find somewhere to camp before the night is over.”
No. No, they don’t set up camp. They find an abandoned treehouse, only it’s a proper house, a cabin, with two bedrooms and a big fireplace and heavy pots and pans hanging up in the kitchen. It could be home, Rosalind thinks. It has been such a long, long day, although she does not know how much time has passed. Her phone is dead and she does not charge it. Celia is already in one of the beds, asleep.
Rosalind sits outside the house with a tin tea-cup, steam rising in thick tendrils.
She hates to admit it, but she’s thinking of a boy.
Rosalind met him just before they left home. No, they were driven. Made to go. He was sharp-eyed and bruised on the jaw, a tear in the shoulder of his jacket. Rosalind had looked at him, hand in one pocket, completely unaggressive at rest despite the fighting -- and she had thought, I recognise myself. There’s something. She ran a hand along the bottom of her face before she spoke to him. Because she was not fighting, but she was always ready. Every night she went to bed and she thought, how long will I have to keep living, knowing that my life as I know it will end at any moment?
Why was he fighting? He was defending somebody else’s honour. No, just his own. Was it enough? It was a tournament. He needed the money. He did not want to fight; he just wanted to be free.
Rosalind was pushed towards him. His hands were delicate, and there were circles under his eyes. “I don’t know why you must fight,” she said, half-hoping that he would explain. He didn’t. He looked at her from underneath his eyelashes. She sighed. He was beautiful; she could not see herself in that part of him. Or his silence. Only the rest.
They shook hands slowly, both trying only to move when the other was already in motion. She wished him luck. Before he could leave, she took off her necklace and put it around his neck. It took her three tries to get the catch to open with her arms brushing against his face and shoulders, and she felt him breathing on her bare neck. It was the loudest noise she had heard pass his lips. “There,” she said, hopping back. She already knew she wouldn’t want the charm where she was going. She could feel the forest calling her. “I hope it brings you luck.”
He stared at her, and didn’t say anything. They were too close. Had Rosalind misjudged? No. He smiled and opened his mouth. But then --
An arm looped around hers and pulled her back, and the circus descended, and the fighting continued, and the fighting went on and on. The duke’s champion took the ring.
Rosalind didn’t know what his voice sounded like. She had seen his hair half-pushed from his face and had heard him breathe, she had even smelled him. But the fact remained that if she ever heard him talking at a distance, she wouldn’t know it was him.
“Get over it,” Celia said, cutting her toenails at the kitchen table.
“You’re disgusting,” Rosalind said.
“No, you,” Celia said, and stuck out her tongue. She had a big smudge of dirt on her face and an earphone in one ear, something tinny blasting from the other earphone that was loosely dangling. “We live here,” Celia said, looking up at her now, “and he’s nowhere. So: Get over it.”
Rosalind shook her head. “Nobody has ever exorcised a feeling or emotion by just forgetting about it,” she said. “Love is like a song. You need to graciously wait for it to end.”
Celia responded by skipping to the next track on her playlist without looking back at up at Rosalind to drive the point home.
Rosalind had shed the dress as soon as they’d found shelter. No, before that. She had never worn a dress in the forest, that was just a trick of the memory. She had dressed in thick leggings, tucked them into walking boots, and a shirt and braces and a ribbed jumper that she liked to wear with the sleeves rolled up. Celia carefully cut Rosalind’s hair off and kept most of it as one fat lock, tied together with a ribbon. They weren’t leggings, they were trousers. She was dressed as a boy. Disguised as a boy. She took a boy’s name; Ganymede. If anybody asked her where she came from, she said: I fell to earth. And tried not to giggle and give away the lie.
They traded for food with a farmer in the next house over. “It’s good to see someone living in the old place,” he said, and gave Ganymede two hares and a bag of potatoes and leeks. Celia found fruits in the forest that they had never tasted before; the farmer promised them that everything was safe. “Nothing’s done me any harm yet.” Celia always ate a tiny bite first, and held it on her tongue until she was sure that nothing was going to explode with poison or gunpowder.
One day, Ganymede was butchering a chicken that he’d given them, and he found a poem inside. A dead, wan poem. It spoke about love. He soon forgot about it, although he remembered the taste of the chicken forever.
But then it happened again, and again. Not just inside the chickens -- pigs’ bellies, pigeon’s breasts. And the trees and the grass and the sky, all were teeming with it. The poetry was getting everywhere. None of it was any good. Love is like a glowing orb... My love’s eyes are the colour of a muddy pool... My love will never leave...
“There is a boy in the forest,” Celia said, grimly. “It’s not you, is it?”
“How dare you,” Rosalind said. Her boots were strewn across the floor and her hair was longer than it had been recently, although still much shorter than she’d like. She was using her indoor voice, her Rosalind voice. She was reading a poem that she’d brought in from where it was about to be blown from a tree and be lost forever. “They’re getting better though,” she said. “He’s run out of rhymes for ‘love’, I think it’s made him more creative.”
“It could be one of your father’s men,” Celia said, next.
“Not likely,” Rosalind said. “All the poems are about a girl.”
Celia shrugged one shoulder. “It’s a hazard being so beautiful,” she said. “Maybe a passing hunter was bewitched...”
“What,” Rosalind said. “You think it’s about you?”
“Could be,” Celia said.
“Celia, you cover your face in dirt every time you leave the house, which is infrequently at best.”
Celia looked at her. “Maybe it’s you then,” she said.
Rosalind never had much luck. “Oh, it is me,” she groaned, as she hid behind one tree and saw Orlando -- her silent, upright Orlando -- hammering a sheet of paper to another. He turned his head slightly, but did not call out. She almost said nothing, she almost stayed where she was -- but, she thought. If he has a voice to hear, I need to hear it.
Even if he does write terrible poetry.
It was as if the tree itself pushed her forwards. She only realised, when he offered a hand for her to shake, that she was Ganymede. That he did not recognise her. “I’m Orlando,” he said. “The younger son of...” and then he trailed off. “Have we met before?”
“I have never left the forest,” Ganymede said. “And yet even I know more about poetry than you do.”
No, that’s not quite right. First, Ganymede asks the time. There’s no clock in the forest, Orlando tells him, although both already know this to be true. If Ganymede looks at the sky he can feel the world bloom around him. He knows the world was one world when he left it, and suspects it to be quite changed now.
Then the insults to the poetry, and the boasting of prowess, and the --
Neither writing terrible poetry, nor pointing out how terrible the poetry is, have traditionally been good moves for an early, hesitant, not-quite romance.
“You need to let me teach you,” Ganymede said. Ganymede was eating an apple and feeling light-headed. Orlando was so close by. His voice was scratchy, higher than expected. He’d started to grow a beard, and it suited him. There was ink on his fingers, because he was still writing with old-style pen and ink.
“What, about love?” Orlando said.
Close enough, Ganymede thought.
“No, no,” Ganymede said. “Pretend I’m her. Look into my eyes.” He took Orlando’s hands and put one on his shoulder, and one on his waist. He tried not to squirm. Orlando still couldn’t meet his eyes. “Well?” he said, trying not to sound impatient.
“It feels strange,” Orlando admitted. “It’s so intimate.”
“Pretend I’m a girl,” Ganymede said. “It shouldn’t be too hard. I hear poets are supposed to have well-developed imaginations.”
“That’s not it,” Orlando protested, and met his eyes, then looked away. His hands were shaking slightly. “I promise.”
He kissed well, and drew back slowly. He touched his mouth. “Ganymede,” he said, and then was lost for words for at least another minute. Ganymede huffed a few times, trying to hide how tender he was feeling.
“Not bad,” Ganymede said, when Orlando had nothing else to add.
“But what did you feel?” Ganymede asked, another day, when the forest was full of white flowers and pollen, even though it had been winter-cold the day before, and full of frost.
“I felt like I knew her,” Orlando said. “I felt like she had seen me and that she knew me...”
“You didn’t just think she was hot,” Ganymede said. “Was she hot. Did you think she was going to solve all your problems.”
“I’ve got problems that she can’t solve,” Orlando said. He was still wearing her necklace. Ganymede reached out to touch it. He missed it. The weight of it. His fingers brushed the silver, and Orlando took a tiny step back. “I don’t know if I should be doing this,” he said. “I came into the forest to find her...”
“What if she doesn’t want you to find her?” Ganymede asked. “Maybe she came into the forest so that she couldn’t be found.”
“Then the forest won’t let me,” Orlando said.
“And so you’ll never find her?” Ganymede said.
“I guess not,” Orlando said. “But she gave away this charm. I thought she’d want it back.”
“What will you say when you find her?”
“I wanted to give back your necklace.”
“That’s it? That’s your opening line? Returning a gift given to you out of faith and kindness?”
“I wanted to return this good-luck charm to you, with all the hope I possess that it will treat you as well as it has treated me?”
“And has it treated you well?”
“It will if it takes me back to her.”
Ganymede looks up and almost wishes for rain. “Good,” he says, at last. “You can speak. I was worried for a time that you could not. But can you speak to her?”
Orlando looked stricken. Ganymede took his hands again, and held them this time. “Pretend once more,” he said. “Pretend that I am her.”
Orlando shook his head, and yet still almost stumbled over his words.
“You’re the same person,” Celia said. “He must know.”
“I don’t think he wants to know,” Rosalind said, scrubbing her boots while Celia poured them glasses of whisky. “I don’t think he’s ready to.”
It has been weeks, and no sign of her father or his merry men. Perhaps they live the life they seek; and perhaps this is Rosalind’s. She misses her father, but she doesn’t doubt she’ll see him again. What does she doubt? The attentions of men. Not love, but what that love means.
She thought -- maybe life seems much longer if you are a man. Or maybe that time hurts less. Maybe it passes quicker, with less pain. She thought -- I should know this. But she doesn't. Ganymede is consumed by wanting, and Rosalind lays in bed each night thinking: how can I live like this forever, how can I reach the life I truly want. Rosalind thinks -- the thing is, I enjoy the games.
Rosalind thinks -- and how does Orlando feel? She thinks of him, so confident until she reminds him of the stakes, and then he crumbles. The stakes? Rosalind. Or are they just Ganymede's hands, wrapped around his?
“You’re not ready,” Celia said. “One of these days he’s going to whisk you away, boy or no, and you’ll have stolen your own true love.”
Orlando kisses Ganymede. He kisses Ganymede a lot. At first, Ganymede stops him. “Too hard,” he says. “Too much tongue.” After a while it becomes moot. It’s not about technique, it’s about feeling.
“Ganymede,” Orlando says, one day. “Why are we still pretending?”
Ganymede looked stricken.
“You’re not just teaching me out of the goodness of your own heart,” Orlando said. “Tell me you feel this, too.”
“I lost my heart a long time ago,” Ganymede croaked, and pressed a hand to Orlando’s ribs. “I don’t want you to do the same.”
“You must feel something,” Orlando said. “My heart is almost jumping out of my chest.”
“Something,” Ganymede said, and withdrew, quickly. “Yes, something is creaking.”
“You will not grow tired of me?” Ganymede said, one night, over a bottle of wild grape wine and slices of cold rabbit meat.
“Tired of you?” Orlando asked, wonder in his voice. He didn't write so much poetry anymore.
“Oh, Rosalind,” Ganymede said, misunderstanding the question. Orlando sighed and looked at the moon. In the far-off distance, they heard music. It sounds like my father’s man, Ganymede thought, and did not pursue the thought, or the song.
“I do not think I could tire of anyone worth loving,” Orlando said. “But nobody starts, at the first, so aware of their own failings...”
Ganymede conceded the point. “After all,” he said. “Sometimes, I find that one can even grow tired of oneself.”
“But hopefully it doesn’t last,” Orlando said.
“And do you wish to return home?” Ganymede said.
“Home?” Orlando said.
“Your manor, your grange, your family’s plot of land. To be buried with all your distant cousins and great-grandfathers.”
“I want to be left here to live and die as I please,” Orlando said. “Do you think she will agree?”
Ganymede looked up at the sky. "Who can say? I do not know her."
"Do you agree?" Orlando said. "Do you not wish to see more of the world than this?"
"I think," Ganymede said, finally, "that I have built most of the world I need."
"Good," Orlando said, and shifted closer.
“Cousin, you are a fool,” Celia says, without looking up from her phone. She met Orlando’s brother Oliver in a clearing yesterday and hasn’t stopped texting him since. “Tell him how you feel.”
“I’m still not sure how I feel,” Rosalind says, standing small and shaking in her underwear and undershirt. “Do you think he knows?”
“I think what that boy doesn’t know would fill up the moon and stars,” Celia says. She yawns and puts the phone down. “But one day, you will have to let him learn by doing.”
Rosalind thinks of him kissing Ganymede against a dying oak, the three lines that were all he had written down for a week. The way he said to her -- I cannot live by thinking, I need to know. An acorn in her hair. She thinks of their cabin, high in the trees. She thinks, I have only lived this far by wishing.
She thinks -- I will not wish now. I will hope.
Does she need to hope? There is Orlando, in crumpled socks, saying, "Let me know when you are tired of waiting." There is Orlando, waiting. Orlando is not sure why they are pretending, and yet not ending the game. Because Ganymede has needed the game. And there is Rosalind, listening for the clockwork of her heart to start. No, it has already started.
It is not the custom for the author to play the epilogue. But this is where the story ends, although the forest continues on. It is the custom for the story to end with a wedding; but for now there is music, and dancing.