Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand
—W. B. Yeats
Jimmy could barely see the clearing in which he stood, as the sprites, burning so brightly that they hurt his eyes, circled him so rapidly that they seemed a bright band surrounding him. He knew then that he had made a mistake and that he was lost. As he gave up hope, he thought of a day five years earlier.
* * * * *
“We brought you a dress.”
I was thoroughly confused. “I’m a boy; I don’t wear dresses.”
“We don’t think so. Everything about you screams girl, and it’s about time you wore the right clothes.”
When they laid hands on me, a breeze began, which quickly became nearly a storm. The sky, previously sunny, darkened. From the ancient trees at my back, voices seemed to whisper, “He is ours; you may not touch him.”
I stood unaffected by the wind that knocked two of the older boys, including the one holding the dress, back on their asses. The ringleader wiped at a bloody nose as he tried to scoot away from me. I smiled at the fear in the boys’ eyes, and then they ran. As the wind ceased, I looked at the treetops far above my eight-year-old head and waved.
When I told my father of the incident, without mentioning the wind or the voices, he said with not a little irritation, “You’re going to have to stand up to them. The only way they’ll stop is if you prove them wrong. Try to fit in a bit, yeah? Be a man.” He looked so disappointed in me.
* * * * *
My older sister and I lived as part of a nice, normal family. Our house sat at the edge of the forest, a very old forest with a mixture of tall, thick evergreens and monstrous, overhanging deciduous trees. From above, the town seemed to have been plopped down into a circle at the edge of the woods. The colorful forest canopy of October, thanks to the oaks, elms, and hickories, suddenly gave way to modest houses and well-lighted streets with traffic signals and fire hydrants. One two-lane, blacktop State Road ran into Main Street from a federal highway forty miles to the east. The roads, except for the one on which I lived, intersected at right angles to create an almost perfect grid. Only the arc of my street, against the forest, ruined the schema. The town seemed always to have been here, though its history was shrouded in a past that ran back to pre-Revolutionary War days. My family, as most of those living there, had resided in the town for generations, watching progress encroach from a distance.
One elementary school and one combination middle/high school served our community and the outlying families to the east away from the forest. Our town had two churches, one Roman Catholic and the other nondenominational Protestant. Everyone went to one or the other, sometimes twice a week. I was at the end of my tenure in middle school when the events recounted here took place. At thirteen, I was feeling more and more isolated and different from my schoolmates. I had read enough science to question the religious myths that informed the community of believers, and, although I should have been developing the hots for my female classmates, I wasn’t.
I had talked to one of my teachers, who was kind and full of good humor. He told me that kids developed those urges at different times, some earlier and some later. That made sense, but his advice didn’t help me understand the queasy feelings I felt when I thought of some of my male friends. My voice, much admired by the church choirmaster, hadn’t really broken yet, so I could sing tenor parts brilliantly. I didn’t think much about war or sports or conquest.
My mother often asked me why I didn’t socialize with my acquaintances more. I could feel her anxiety about my not fitting in. My peers continued to treat me as if I were fundamentally different from them. I learned what the epithet “queer” meant. I also began to wonder if they might not be right about me. Over time, their taunts became more frequent and aggressive; the strange story from five years ago about the dress had faded from their memories but not from mine. My parents told me repeatedly that the only way to deal with the taunters was to prove them wrong.
I had been thoroughly warned not to go into the forest, as had all the children of the town, but occasionally I ventured into its periphery, where I walked in the darkness of the canopy’s shroud, smelled the earth, and crunched over fallen leaves on its floor. I felt at home there as I passed old-growth, evergreen trunks eight or ten feet in diameter. Stories said that somewhere near the heart of the forest a rushing river ran, but I never went far enough in to hear or see it. Somehow, the wind could stir at the forest’s edge, almost as a whispered invitation to come closer to the forest’s heart—an invitation I resisted.
The warnings that all children in our little town heard from parents and elders spoke of lost children who had gone into the forest and disappeared. At first I thought these stories apocryphal, but in the town library, where I spent a good deal of time, I looked at old newspapers and found articles, though not many, of lost children who had gone into the forest never to be found. The reports suggested that even searchers had avoided the deepest forest.
My grandfather, who had died when I was five, told me wonderful tales of his walks in the forest and of the creatures he saw there—deer, elk, rabbits, raccoons, bears, and even wolves. He told me of strange weather that gathered over the forest—as if the place made its own climate. For a few years I thought his stories real, even the one about a bears’ picnic he said he had seen, but then my parents and my sister told me to give them no heed.
In this October, then, I had more questions than answers—about the forest and about myself. I had begun to wish fervently that I could escape my little town.
In our community, Halloween was more of a religious holiday than a costume party—All Hallows’ Eve. We were generally in church rather than in costume. The holy day celebrated and venerated departed saints. The prayer in our Protestant church, which I would hear later in the evening, went:
“Oh Lord our God, increase, we pray thee, and multiply upon us the gifts of thy grace: that we who do prevent the glorious festival of all thy Saints, may of thee be enabled joyfully to follow them in all virtuous and godly living. Through Jesus Christ, Our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.”
I would fidget and find distraction in remembering my grandfather’s tales as the prayer droned on. Since I didn’t find my classmate’s treatment of me very Christian, I found no solace in the church. Besides, I had begun to read about the way the church’s saints treated native peoples, and I didn’t find much there to venerate.
“I’m going out.”
“Be back in time to get ready for the service.”
I sullenly walked out the back door that faced the forest until I sat on the ground before the forest’s edge. After a few minutes, I heard the voices, deeper than mine, of my classmates.
“Let’s get the little queer.”
“He should have been a girl; he sings like one.”
“Maybe we can beat it out of him.”
I’d heard all these taunts before, and the beating cure hadn’t worked so far. I looked behind me to see where my tormentors were, but I didn’t see anyone. Still, my heart rate was up and my heart was in my throat. I got to my feet as quickly as I could to face whatever would come. Then from the forest’s edge I heard, “This way. You’ll be safe in here.”
I turned back to the forest to see a boy about my age, but beautiful as I was not, and tall. His hair was long and shaggy, and he wore loose pants with no shirt and no shoes or boots. His hair was wreathed in leaves and his chest was muscled with the sheen of sweat; I could smell him—a little fetid, but sweet.
“Come on—before they get here. They’re going to pound you.”
Turning my head back toward my house, I still couldn’t see any pursuers, but I didn’t want another beating, so I walked toward the boy, whose skin I now saw had a slightly greenish tinge. I was attracted to him in a way I had never been attracted to anyone before. I felt giddy, and as my savior reached his hand out, I took it and was pulled into the forest. I think I would have followed him anywhere.
His hand on mine was rough, almost like fine bark, and as I was pulled toward the center of the forest, I could still hear the taunts from behind me. As I knew that none of my tormentors would come into the forest, I wondered why I could still hear them, and I began to fear I was in trouble. The boy moved us swiftly—and for him effortlessly; I was panting with the exertion. I had no idea how far into the forest we were. Finally, my guide stopped. I heard again the wind, but this time I could almost make out words—something like, “Come away, Oh human child!” I shook my head to clear my mind.
“They won’t be able to get you now.”
“Who are you?”
“Are you from my town?”
He laughed in a musical way with a voice that resembled mine, although a little deeper. He stood with one hand on a hip, as I often did. “The town? Never have I lived in a town. I live in the forest.”
“No one lives in the forest.”
“Jimmy, you’ve never really looked about you when you’ve walked here.”
“How do you know my name?” Now I was afraid again. I started to turn back, but the tormenting voices arose from behind again.
“I know the names of all the friends of my forest.”
He leaned now against the column of a large tree trunk, rubbing his hand against the bark in a soothing way. “Well, you called the place you live ‘my town.’”
“Oh. But a forest is just a wild place, not somewhere people live.”
“Just a wild place? Who told you that nonsense?”
“I learned it in school, and it’s not nonsense. I’ve walked in the forest a lot—well, some—and I’ve never seen houses or even other people.”
He came close to me and reached to place my hand over his heart. I felt, as much as I heard, the reply, “When your head is full of learned ideas, often you cannot see what’s in front of you. I’ve felt you walking in my forest often, though until now I never needed you to see me.”
The whisper again fell on me from the forest canopy, this time more clearly, “Come away, Oh human child to the waters and the wild …” I felt Viridios’s breath on my cheek, and in his eyes I saw a yearning. I leaned in toward him, thinking I would kiss him, but he quickly backed away, laughing.
“There’s hope for you after all, but your lips aren’t for me—yet. Are you weary?”
“No. I feel okay.”
“I helped you; now I need your help.”
I nodded, and he said, “Onward, then.”
He grasped my hand and pulled me on. The canopy became even thicker, and less light penetrated to the ground. The air cooled, and I began to hear in the distance the sound of moving water. I was panting with the unaccustomed exertion, but Viridios had helped me, and I was determined to help him. Although I felt a mixture of exhilaration and fear, I wanted to be a man for him.
Our pace was steady until I heard a faint melody, and Viridios slowed us to a careful creep. We found the source of the music: a great festival of dance. This dance was performed by large, shaggy, brown bears. Their mouths were drawn almost in smiles, and several of their tongues lolled from mouths. The claws at the end of their paws were stout, long, and sharp. I shuddered at the thought of having my torso laid open by a swipe of those claws, and yet the bears seemed mild and happy. The small clearing in which they gamboled was filled with humming bees, and the tables at the edge of the clearing were covered in honeycombs, dripping golden honey that I could smell. The bears that weren’t dancing were joyously eating from the combs that seemed a gift from the bees. Golden drools of honey dripped from their mouths.
The bears danced as I had seen people dance, on two legs and in ursine serpentines over the ground. Some wore hats, and I saw that the music came from instruments played by other bears.
I almost called out to the bears, but my guide put his finger to his lips, and we crept past the clearing. As we left the animals, one of the bears looked right at me, and I thought it winked. When we were a fair distance from the bears, Viridios picked up the pace again, always striking deeper into the forest. As we hastened, he said, “We must never disturb the bears at their festival. Bears are creatures more ancient than I am. They believe the forest is theirs, but I think we are all of it, even you.”
The farther into the forest we went, the more I thought I might be a creature of the forest, destined to remain here with my guide forever, but I had so many questions, and I hoped we would stop soon so that I could ask them. The sound of rushing water became louder with each passing minute.
At last, we came to the edge of a clearing through which the river, about which I had heard from my grandfather, ran. Its water had a golden hue so that its froth seemed filigree. Near the clearing, the wind freshened, and I heard the whispering voice first heard when I was eight:
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.
I saw, then, who was whispering out of the wind. Small sprites—whose bodies radiated bright, yellow light—flitted through the overhanging boughs, welcoming me.
Viridios squeezed my hand and drew me into the clearing. Near the bank of the river, an old man with a long face and a long beard and wearing a gold crown gestured to me, inviting me into the center of the clearing. Suddenly, the sprites formed a circle around the edge of the clearing and began to move in a circuit until their whisper became a loud hum. As I approached the old man, Viridios released my hand, and I saw that the circle of sprites had formed a limit beyond which I could not move.
Viridios moved to a stone platform beside the old man at the river bank. He reclined on the platform and immediately seemed to sleep. The old man said, “I am the King of this river, which has been renewed countless times out of memory. Now my time to fade has come, and you must help your guide.”
I could barely think as the sound of the river and the hum of the sprites filled my head. “How?”
I approached the seemingly dead form of the boy who had brought me here. I remembered what he had said: “Your lips are not for me—yet.” I knelt beside him, leaned over, and kissed him gently on the lips. I felt breath leave my chest and flow into him. Then, he vanished, and I leapt up, looking around.
The old man was gone, and in his place was a young man, looking like Viridios but wearing a golden crown. The young King said, “You have done well. The forest, the river, the old lands are safe again for a while.”
“Oh. Glad I could help, but I’m supposed to go to church tonight, so if you could help me get back to the town?”
The young King laughed. “You are not for the town; you are ours. When I begin to fade, you will bring a savior as you were brought here, and you will take my place.”
“I don’t want to stay!” I shouted over the river sounds and the buzzing of the whirling sprites.
“What do you have in your old life? You have no friends. Even your parents don’t understand you. Do you think someone like you, who loves other boys, will ever be welcome there?”
“If you had asked, I might have stayed with you. The forest is beautiful, but I can visit without staying here.”
“Too late for that. Your fears brought you here, and here they will keep you.”
I knew then that I had made a mistake and that I was lost. As I gave up hope, I thought of a day five years earlier when some older boys had almost forced me to wear a dress. The forest had saved me then, but now I saw that help came with a price. True, I was afraid of being persecuted because I was different, but hiding here by the river didn’t seem a good solution.
“No. I have to go back and face my fears and the bullies.”
“You are ours now.”
“You’re no different than the church or the boys who beat me. You shouldn’t use me like they do.”
“Nature will out, and you have no way out.”
Still, I looked for a way out, but seeing none, I ran to the river bank and jumped into the torrent. I was sure I would drown as I bumped over rocks in the river bed, but mostly I was carried on the surface of golden foam. I could hear the angry voice of Viridios and the snarling hum of the sprites fade in the distance, and I felt unaccountably sleepy.
I awoke in my backyard at the edge of the forest, and I could feel the wind from its heart on my face, but the wind didn’t speak to me anymore.
My father’s irritated voice from our back porch said, “If you don’t get in here and get ready for church, there’ll be hell to pay.”
I managed to change clothes in time, and we went to the service; I didn’t pay much attention to the prayers or the homily because, in the forest, I had seen hell in a way that was just as frightening as my regular old life. No one else would save me; I’d have to do that myself. And, eventually I did.
* * * * *
In time, my sister married, as did I, although not to a woman. As far as I can tell my sister’s children love their uncles who are as married to each other as their parents are. I walk in the forest with them, telling stories of the dance of the bears, the sprites, and the Golden River. I tell them that the forest is nothing to fear if they keep their wits about them and see the woods and river for what they are.