By Regina Swanson
“Kiri says there’s a dryad in the willow tree by the mill pond,” my sister Lilla announced. She stuffed a piece of honey bread in her mouth and waited for the reaction. Mamich kneaded dough with strong hands and thick forearms powdered white with fine flour.
“Don’t be silly,” Mamich snapped. Her usually soft gray eyes, ringed with wrinkles, sparked at Lilla. She paused to wipe a curl of hair, also gray, from her forehead with her arm, leaving a smudge above her eyes. The upper half of the kitchen door was open allowing a breeze to cool the pies on the sill, but the fire under the iron stew pot kept the room uncomfortably warm for work. Lilla and I sat swinging our legs from the long wooden bench at the table.
“What’s a dryad?” I asked. Lilla was older than me by two years. She knew more than me.
“A naked lady!” Lilla said brashly. She avoided looking at Mamich and looked hard at me instead. Her plump, freckled cheeks and gray eyes looked like Mamich’s. But she wasn’t as nice.
“No such thing,” Mamich hissed. “I won’t have such talk in my kitchen. Go milk the goats.”
“Already did,” Lilla sassed. She pointed at the pails of milk just inside the kitchen door.
“Then go do your figures. Bring your slate in here to show me. Go now!”
I covered my smile that Lilla got in trouble. Who cares about a naked lady in a tree? I broke off another piece of honey bread while Mamich was distracted.
“Dres, you too!”
“What did I do?” I didn’t think it was fair, but I went to get my slate. I stuck my tongue out at Lilla; it was her fault.
“You better watch out,” Lilla said. “Dryads eat boys because boys are dumb.”
“You’re dumb,” I yelled. “You got us in trouble!” I clambered up the stairs before she could hit me and got my slate from the attic room I shared with my two older brothers. They were out helping Dadich rebuild the chicken coop, otherwise I could have asked them. Instead I forgot about the naked lady until bedtime. I thought about her while I lay on my pallet that night, though. Why would a naked lady be outside? Wouldn’t someone give her clothes? Where did she live? I pulled my quilt up to my chin. It would be cold to be naked outside at night.
At school the next day, I told my friend Ben about the dryad. “Oh,” he said. “My dadich told me about that a long time ago. He said that’s why they tell us to stay away from the mill pond.”
Ben might have been lying. He did sometimes. “Did he tell you that it’s a naked lady?” I asked. I was sure he didn’t know that part.
Ben looked surprised which made me smile. His reddish hair stood out from his head. His eyes were always red, too, and he rubbed them with the heels of his hands. “It can’t be. Dadich says it’s supposed to be dangerous. How could a naked lady be dangerous?”
I frowned and shrugged. I guessed I should ask my dadich about it. The trouble was getting a free moment with him. He was always working on the farm.
At school a couple of days later Ben said, “The dryad is a naked lady.” We sat at the roots of the giant mulberry tree that shaded the schoolyard. I pitched a pebble at a big, black beetle and Ben dug a hole with the heel of his old brown shoe.
“How do you know?” I said.
“I saw her,” Ben said. “My dadich told me not to take the goats past the mill pond, but yesterday I did.”
I stared at him. Ben didn’t have any brothers or sisters. Before school each morning he drove his family’s four goats to meet my brother Jeg who watched them graze all day. After school, Ben drove them home again, but he didn’t have to go by the mill pond either way. He was supposed to go right through the square.
“Did you get a whipping?” I asked. I thought he deserved one.
“No one caught me,” he said. “And I saw the dryad. It’s a naked lady for sure.”
“You’re a liar,” I said. “You wouldn’t go by the mill pond anyway.”
When Ben shrugged, I knew he wasn’t lying. He always got mad when he was lying. “So what did she look like?” I asked.
“Pretty, like Teacher,” Ben said, blushing. “She was stuck to the tree, though. She asked me to help her, but I had to get the goats home.”
I thought I would have helped her. I would have given her my shirt to put on.
“I saw her again,” Ben said, a few days later. We were in our spots under the tree. The bigger boys played ball and Lilla sat with the older girls braiding each other’s hair on the schoolhouse steps.
“You’re going to get in trouble,” I said. I felt a little mad, but I wasn’t sure why. Part of me wished he’d never gone and I was the one who saw her.
“Maybe,” he said, “but she’s really sad. She’s stuck to the tree, and she’s lonely.”
“Why’s she stuck to the tree? Can’t she climb out?”
“Not stuck in the tree, dummy,” Ben rolled his eyes. “She’s sort of … stuck to it.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. And you shouldn’t go by the mill pond,” I yelled, but Ben didn’t even yell back at me. He just sat looking miserable with his watery eyes and his hair sticking out everywhere.
I wondered if I should tell someone. As it got hotter and hotter, Ben began acting stranger and stranger. He stared off all the time, daydreaming. If I talked to him, sometimes he didn’t hear me. In class sometimes he didn’t even hear Teacher. Then one day he didn’t come to the schoolroom at all.
“Dres, do you know where Ben is?” Teacher asked. She looked worried. I shook my head, but I thought I might know.
The clapboard classroom, even with the windows and doors all open, seemed stuffy the rest of the lesson. I almost got in trouble for fidgeting because I could hardly sit still on the wooden bench. I certainly couldn’t concentrate on reading the primer. Maybe Ben got the dryad out of the tree. Maybe they ran away.
Mamich wasn’t in the kitchen when I got home after school. She left bread with jam and milk for me and Lilla. We ate in silence at first. The kitchen seemed big and empty without Mamich taking up so much of it. The small clock on the dark wood mantel ticked. The dried herbs hanging here and there stirred strangely on unfelt drafts. The fire was banked and nothing bubbled in the iron pot.
“Where’s Mamich?” I whispered.
“I don’t know,” Lilla said softly. She fingered the buckle on the old belt that held her books and slate. Her light eyes were serious. “I wonder if Dadich is okay.”
I hadn’t thought of that. “Maybe she would have gotten us from school if Dadich was hurt. Or Jeg or Aris.”
Lilla nodded. I couldn’t remember Lilla looking scared before.
At last Mamich bustled through the kitchen door just as we finished our bread. I was never so glad to see her, breathless and fat in her flower print dress, framed in the light of the open door. Lilla and I jumped up and ran to hug her and she wrapped her arms tightly around us.
“Oh, my little ones,” she cried. “I have terrible news. I just came from the Hensl’s. Your friend, Ben, Dres. He was found in the mill pond this morning.”
I shook my head and tried to back away, but Mamich smothered me to her bosom.
“We tell you children over and over,” Mamich sobbed. “But you go to the mill pond. You go and you think nothing will happen …”
“No, Mamich!” I yelled into her body. “No! It was the dryad! He told me he saw her!”
Mamich said, “You knew he was going to the pond?”
“I knew about the dryad,” I said.
“Hush,” Mamich said. She took me by the shoulders and looked me in the eyes. “Dres, they will mourn for Ben for the next three days. We will go as a family tomorrow. But no dryad. Such talk will not help.”
I nodded, but I knew the truth. “If I’d said something sooner this wouldn’t have happened.”
Mamich looked at me in sad silence then clutched me tightly to her again.
In the morning, Mamich combed and oiled my hair, and tied a black ribbon in a big bow under the starch-stiffened collar of my good shirt. Even though it was summer, she made me put on Aris’s old black boots; they were a little too big, but she said I couldn’t be barefoot and my holey brown school shoes wouldn’t do. Mamich and Lilla wore dark dresses, their hair braided and tucked into black crocheted nets. Even Dadich and the boys were scrubbed and dressed for this terrible day. We walked as a family to Ben’s house.
Other families made their way as well, moving quietly and slowly through the square. A light, early morning mist hung in the air. Everyone greeted each other in low voices. Boot heels scuffed on the wide stones of the square and then crunched in the gravel as the road led out to the Hensl’s farm. There was no breeze. No birds sang. The sun swam in the gray sky a long way away.
The Hensl house was smaller, darker, and poorer than ours, wood instead of brick and plaster. Ben lay on the cloth-covered table in the great room, a gray blanket pulled up to his chest. People filed past to look at Ben, said a few words to his mamich and dadich, Goodman and Goodwife Hensl, and then went right back out into the mist. My mamich held hands with Goodwife Hensl for a good while before waving me over. Goodwife Hensl tried so hard not to cry the corners of her mouth turned down with every word.
“He was my good friend,” I said before I choked and hid my tears in Mamich’s skirt. Goodwife Hensl started crying, too, and Dadich bent over to pick me up like he hadn’t since I was a little boy. I could hear the low voices of the adults talking around me, but I didn’t understand what they were saying. I couldn’t think of anything else but Ben, and I didn’t want to look at him lying on the table.
Anger burned my cheeks. Why didn’t anyone want to hear about the dryad? Maybe they would cut the tree down if they knew there was a murderer inside.
I buried my face in Dadich’s strong shoulders. Even scrubbed up, he smelled like fresh dirt. Soon I found we were walking together on the mill road; I was still in his arms. We were alone. “Where’s Mamich?” I asked.
“Still at the Hensl’s,” Dadich replied softly.
“Why are we here?”
“I want to show you something.” He set me down and I saw we were on the road near the pond and the willow tree that hung over it. “Hold my hand.”
I did and we walked closer to the tree. It bent over the mill pond, trailing silvery green branches in the still water. Its bark was craggy except where a smooth spot opened up, widening as a slender waist to bare shoulders and then closing again. I looked up at Dadich.
“Is that it?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Can we walk closer?”
We did. The bank of the mill pond fell steeply away from the road. The mud was slippery; I caught my breath as I saw the raw scar where Ben must have fallen.
“He said he saw a lady,” I told Dadich. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him she was naked.
“Yes, some boys say they have a seen a lady with her arms around the tree,” Dadich said. “But you can see, she’s not here.”
I nodded, but stared harder at the tree. “Why would Ben fall in if there wasn’t a lady?”
“I don’t know, son,” Dadich said. He held my hand a little tighter. “But there is no lady. You see?”
“I see,” I said, confused. Dadich held my hand as we walked home, and that made me feel a little better.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Ben, though. I kept seeing his face, white and puffy as he lay on the table. I saw him sulking and daydreaming at school, and I saw the tree. It didn’t make sense. I lay awake that night listening to Jeg and Aris snore. The full moon shone through the small attic window directly into my eyes. I pulled the blanket over my head, but then I couldn’t breathe. How could Ben be fooled by a smooth spot on a tree?
Before my mind caught up, my bare feet were already running on the moonlit road to the mill. I was still in my nightshirt, but it didn’t matter. The night was warm and still. I ran. Past the mill and on to the mill pond. The tree. Its leaves rattled though there was no breeze. The smooth spot in the trunk seemed to move in the dappled light.
Then I saw her.
Her arms wrapped loosely about the tree, her head bowed and turned slightly so that I could see her chin just above her shoulder. She cried silently with her eyes closed, her bare back rising and falling with her sobs.
“You killed my friend!” I stayed several paces away. A safe distance, I supposed.
“He slipped,” she said in a high voice like twittering birds. “He tried to help me.” She opened her eyes. They were yellow-green, large, and a little scared. Her skin shone a pale gray-green; her hair was leaves. She lifted her chin and looked at me over her shoulder. She could not move from that position, I saw. Where her legs should have been her body turned back into the tree.
“Why don’t you ask someone bigger to help you?”
“They can’t see me,” she said. “You saw that for yourself.”
“Ben’s dadich said you were dangerous.”
“I can’t move.”
I saw that was true. I thought for a moment in silence. “Why are you stuck there?”
“I’m a dryad. I was born of this tree.”
“Then how can you get out?”
She closed her eyes and sighed. “A long and difficult process,” she said, sadly. “Go away now, please.”
I stepped closer. Ben had died trying to help her. He thought it was that important. “Maybe I can help you.”
“I don’t believe anyone can.”
“I can try,” I said, moving closer. I could see her ribs, her tiny waist, her hips. “You can have my nightshirt.”
She gave me a slight smile. “No need, Dres, though you are sweet.”
I blushed as she said my name. I stepped around more to her front so she didn’t have to look over her shoulder so much. My feet squelched in the mud. The moon, lower in the sky now, cast deep shadows, and I could barely see the bank or the water below. I could look her full in the face, though, and she was as pretty as Ben said. Her amber-green eyes glowed slightly in the dark like a cat’s. She leaned toward me as much as she could, and she smelled green like a sapling or a cut branch.
“Tell me what to do.”
Just then my foot slipped in the mud. I felt a moment’s panic, but the dryad caught the neck of my nightshirt with a hand of knotted twigs. I reached up to touch her wrist, just to feel her, but I felt a branch, not a girl, her arm was strong and unyielding as wood. She pulled me toward her, away from the bank.
“Thank you,” I said. “That’s what happened to Ben!”
“Yes,” she said. “I couldn’t catch him.”
She pulled me right up against the trunk of her tree, then leaned back and took a firmer hold under my arms. With one thin but powerful branch-like arm she lifted me off my feet and brought me level to her face.
“I could have tangled him with my roots if I’d had more time. But it was morning and there were people.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I lost him just when he was mine.” She leaned away from the trunk even further, creating a dark opening into the tree itself. The front of her body was split wood. Her tree creaked at she lifted me up even further.
“Set me down!” I kicked at her and dug my fingers into the bark of her arm, but she wrapped a tendril around my arms, pinning them to my sides. I started to cry.
“I could help you get out the tree!” I screamed desperately. I didn’t want to go in that black hole.
“I can’t get out of the tree,” she said in her voice like singing birds. “I am the tree.”
She roped her thin branches down around my thighs then lowered me toward the darkness.
“Some flowers use scent, some use water, some use food,” she said lightly.
I kept crying. I didn’t know why she was talking, or what she was saying. I screamed but I still heard her.
“We the trees and flowers, we hunt without moving.”
The tree closed around me.
Regina Swanson lives, works, and writes in La Habra, California. She holds a Master’s in English Composition from Cal Poly, SLO and is currently a pursuing a second Master’s in Philosophy at CSULB. Lure is her first published work of fiction. She hopes to carve out time to write more fiction between torturing undergraduate students and cursing her thesis adviser.