I walk out the sliding glass door into your world. Sometimes I forget how close you are.
I let you scrape me with dry branches, bite me with your mosquitos, still me with the moon that shines through your tall maples, illuminating only what you want me to see, like this jasmine. It spills down from the fence. A breeze carries its scent to my lips and I taste its sweetness.
“What do you want?” I ask, shivering. I’m dressed in a thin tank and knickers because you woke me.
I don’t expect an answer, not in any simple sense. Your breath is heavy in the swaying trees.
I walk to the jasmine. It shifts and stretches outward and becomes a tunnel. When I enter, the sweetness is dizzying. Time turns fluid, my movements through it are slow and graceful, like underwater.
Despite my grace, I lose my balance and fall onto the soft moss at your feet.
I look up. The whites of your eyes shine. The rest of you green, ivy-bound, like a stone statue in an abandoned estate. The leaf crown is now your hair, not the soft waves I remember running my fingers through. A current passes through my fingertips at remembering. You twitch, bird-like, and attempt a smile.
Your mouth loses its softness. The teeth you reveal are hunter’s teeth. Am I your prey?
Each time, you are more wood and less man; did you know?
“Why have you come?” you say in a croak, then cough, clearing your throat.
“You woke me.”
“Your dreams woke me,” you say, then bend and bite my neck. I know you mean it in play, but it hurts. I put my palm to the spot to soothe it.
“Lay down with me?” You say. I think it’s the question that gets me. You’re still vulnerable.
I nod and we lay down on the soft moss. I wrap my leg over yours. Your skin is almost bark.
“Tell me,” you say.
I know what you want. I sigh. You run your branch-fingers through my hair and I relax. I tell you of paddling on the lake, work drama, tube strike, a Pinter play I saw that stayed with me for weeks. Once I begin, the words flow, as if they were trapped before, waiting for you.
Then I tell you of the wars, of girls disappearing, of boys killing. You are so quiet, I think you might’ve fallen asleep. When I look up, your eyes have lost their animal glow and you smile a softer smile, the canines receded. I touch your cheek—it is soft.
“Now we make love,” I say.
You laugh and roll on top of me.
Later, I lay next to you, and stroke your hair. It is soft and long, longer than mine now. I pull leaves and broken branches out of your hair until I can really run my fingers through it. You pull me close, hold me tight against your side, and we are just a man and a woman, briefly.
I feel restlessness blossom in my belly and say, “Your turn.”
You prop yourself up on your elbow, look at me. “Are you sure?”
You tell me about following the underground river until it ends in a lake, the breath of a wolf on a hunt, the freedom and thrill of the bird in flight. Then you speak of layers. Earth layers, tree layers, world layers.
“You know about world layers,” you say, running your hand over my breast.
My skin prickles and bristles as feathers grow and cover my skin. I can smell all of you now, you the man, you the wood, you that is us. I lick you with my rough tongue, scratch your chest with my claws. It is intoxicating to feel so much.
“You should get back,” you say.
You smile and don’t hide the sadness. You lift me, carry me as I cling to your neck. You set me down and I refuse to unwrap us, but jasmine is calling. I pry myself off and step back to drink you in. The wood is taking over already and I cannot bear it.
I want to touch you again, with my words and body, feel you inside me, you the wild, you the man. My arms reach for you, talons clutching at what I shouldn’t have. I am frozen in time, place, this internal feud. I could stay, I think. My skin tingles with this notion. Today, I’m stronger than you, or we are stronger than you. Do you feel it?
Somewhere, the bells begin to ring, their sound faint and wistful, like a good dream forgotten. I turn and walk into the tunnel. Walking back, I leave a trail of feathers, claws, and tears.
I wake in my bed to the last note in the bell song. Then, all is quiet and I can’t decide if I actually heard the bells or if it’d been a dream—my body’s ploy to rouse me. The sun is high in the sky—I slept through my alarm, but I can’t seem to care.
I let myself out into the garden and walk softly on the dewy grass with my bare feet. I’m heading for the jasmine, looking for proof. There it is—a few feathers and a small bird-like claw. I suspect you arranged them, for you know my doubt. I touch the feathers, then lick my finger. It’s salty. It’s the memory of happiness that hurts the most.
“I hate you,” I whisper.
A soft laughter answers.
—Alina Rios is an immigrant and a dreamer. She spent the first part of her life in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now lives in Seattle with her 7-year old son and a ghost-cat. Her work has appeared in Grievous Angel, The Colored Lens, Apex, and other fine places. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Bracken Magazine. Find her at alinarios.com or @AlinasSoul.