FICTION August 1, 2014

In the Deep Wood

by Cynthia Reeves

There were once twin sisters, Nyx and Hydra, who lived in a sylvan cottage in the deep, deep wood. Both were fair and lovely, with soft blond curls and pale blue eyes, hands as delicate as angels’ wings, and skin so pure and blemishless that even the alabaster Venus cut off her arms in shame. As fairy tales would have it, their good mother, Chandra, as fair as her daughters, died horribly in childbirth with a stillborn son, and their stepmother, who shall remain nameless, was ugly and cruel.

Wicked Stepmother took great pleasure in reminding her stepdaughters (whispering so her husband could not hear), “Someday the sun will ripen you both to prunes.”

Their father, because he had not read Freud, was as clueless about women as a man can be and could not for the life of him understand why his new wife and fair daughters fought constantly. So every night, he retreated to the refuge of a particularly exquisite birch whose thick trunk supported him and slender arms caressed him as tenderly as his first wife’s. And there every night he puffed on his pipe and pondered how his once-upon-a-time life had become so complicated. He pondered this all his days until the day he died.

Fortunately, Wicked Stepmother died soon after, struck down by a runaway buggy whose reins some say were guided by the hands of God. Alas, they had not read Nietzsche. If they had, they would have known that the buggy was driven by the twins themselves, but revenge is a tale best told cold and sweet and is much too familiar to trouble with here.

Left alone, the two fair sisters shut themselves up in their sylvan cottage, determined to outwit Time’s (and Wicked Stepmother’s) untimely prognostication. Thus their fair skin never saw the sun. By day, on their rare ventures out into the world, they shrouded themselves from head to toe in heavy cloaks of dazzling white to reflect every trace of color and light. Only at night, and every night, did they walk together uncloaked through the deep, deep wood. If anyone had chanced to pass them in this nightly constitutional, he might have thought for a moment that the twin moons of Pluto had fallen to Earth for a spell. All was whiteness and beauty, with no cold dark as yet to spoil the fairy tale within which the two young women lived.

Nyx and Hydra had a number of suitors who made their way into the wood to plead their troth solely on the basis of the sisters’ fabled beauty, because no one but the dead had seen their faces or flesh for many years. The suitors’ undying devotion died, of course, killed by the twins’ indifference to love. Neither sister thought any of the lovesick men a match for her beauty, and so they remained alone together in the woods, unblemished by sun or son.

A hundred years passed, and all who knew the sisters passed as well.

And their names were forgotten, except as names in legends . . .

But to each other, they were as real as you and I.

And so it came to pass that the inevitable darkness that stalks each one of us arrived at the doorstep of the sylvan cottage in the deep wood. Hydra took ill with fever, which flushed her alabaster cheeks to an alarming crimson. And though Nyx nursed her sick twin for days and days with bark beer and mouse-ear and other herbals she collected in her nightly ramble, Hydra continued to languish in her bed.

“Dear Nyx,” she finally urged, “you must go to the village and find me a medicine to cure my fever, else I shall perish.”

Although she had never left Hydra’s side in all the years they had been on Earth, Nyx was determined to make her sick sister well. So she donned her white cloak, taking care to pull the hood full over her fair face, and embarked alone on the long journey to the village where she hoped the apothecary would have some medicine to cure her sister’s sickness.

After a grueling morning’s slog along the vine-laden path, she met a fruit peddler, a wise and wizened crone whose basket burst with ripe and juicy plums, each one a distinctively deep and vibrant purple streaked with veins of rose and gold. She did not stop to think from whence these plums had come, for she blindly trusted science to someday account for the miracle of such curiosities.

“May I?” she asked the crone, for she had never tasted a plum. Before the crone could answer, the butterfly’s hand reached out from within the folds of the white cloak to pick the plummiest from the peck of plump plums.

“Be careful what you reach for,” the old crone replied, eyeing the twin’s delicate and faultless hand. “For not all plums are the same.”

The twin clucked her tongue and laughed. The crone’s platitudes reminded her of Wicked Stepmother’s, whose dreadful prune prophecy so dominated her life but never did come true. Distracted by these thoughts, she did not notice that the skin of each plum was unique and beautiful in its particular pattern of light and dark, purple, rose, and gold. She took a bite of the plum in hand and found to her delight that it was even sweeter and juicier than she had imagined, and she took another bite and another, suddenly ravenous for the taste of plum. Perhaps if the first had not been so unexpectedly sweet, she might have paid the crone for that one particular plum and continued on her way. Instead she ate and ate until all the plums were devoured.

The crone held out her hand for compensation, and Nyx discovered to her dismay that she had just enough to pay the woman and no more. Distressed by her thoughtlessness—for what had she now to offer the apothecary in exchange for his patents?—she determined to puzzle it out as she went.

“How could I have allowed sweet plums to unsettle my careful life?” she berated herself aloud, but no one heard, for there was no one on the path to hear. This new and curious uncertainty felt at once anxious and thrilling.

On and on she went, fretting and wondering, until finally in mid-afternoon she reached the edge of the village. Consumed with concern over her profligate lust for plums and its implications for her sister’s health, she forgot to consider that it had been more than one hundred years since she had last been to the village with her beautiful mother, and that things might have changed. And now before her was a maze of winding streets and stone buildings that had not been there so many years ago. Circumnavigating the village, she marveled at how strange it all seemed, so many criss-cross streets paved with rough stones and not the hard-packed earth she remembered from her childhood. Not one recognizable face appeared to guide her. After wandering lost for quite some time, she heard familiar sounds—a rush-crash of water and two singsong voices rising above the tumult—and she remembered that in the village center lay a fountain whose spring was a constant pulsing through the years of change. She followed the sounds and soon found herself in the village square, which was actually round, the shops being arrayed around the circular fountain from which gushed the sweetest, purest water the Earth had ever seen. Or so the villagers claimed. Who can prove such things?—for, as everyone knows, polls are fraught with statistical anomalies. And there in the fountain were two bronzed girls, innocent as their laughter, stripped to their slips and splashing in the whirlpools swirling at the base of the waterfall.