By Lucinda Preston
On his way home, Samuel saw the same bit of forest that drew his eye that morning. It still looked different from the rest, appeared to be glowing. A car horn blared behind him, startled him, but he did not speed up. When he slowed even more, and moved over, several cars swerved around him. The combined sounds of screeching tires, and shouted obscenities, barely touched him. They were lost on the wind.
Soon, he was pulling over, stopping, killing his engine. He pushed his door open, stepped out onto the street. When he walked towards the trees, he felt a longing he knew only when he was dreaming. His urge was to reach for his sword, call for his dogs, but they were not there. If Patrice were correct, they never existed. He threw off his jacket, threw it on pavement marred by burnt rubber.
He strode into the patch, hesitated when he stepped off pavement onto fluffy soil. The small patch of trees grew into something wilder, more dangerous. It made him think about turning back to the road. A familiar sound stopped him. It was the pounding of several paws against damp ground, the excited yips of running dogs. Soon, they were upon him and leaping up playfully.
They were his dogs, his hunting companions. He would know them anywhere. How had they come into the world if what he saw in his dreams was only the foolish fantasy of an aging man? When they suddenly raced off, he thought nothing of following them. Nothing dangerous could happen so close to the road. He did not stop when the sounds of the road disappeared and the forest swallowed him and his dogs.
All he could think about was the adventure his companions were leading him on. Perhaps he would bring back proof of the reality of his dreams. Patrice would believe him and he would start feeling passion once more. He was sure he felt it before and was determined to regain it. He could if he simply followed his faithful dogs. They would lead him to a way to reclaim what his dreams hinted at.
The further he went into the trees, the more unruly the ground became. It was becoming wilder. He was unconcerned because his dogs had never led him astray. As long as they were moving happily in front of him, wagging their tails, he would follow. Besides, his footsteps on the uneven soil was surer than any he took on pavement. Patrice would barely recognize his confident gait.
Though his sword had not materialized at his hip, he could imagine carrying it. He would be as sure in its use as he was in his step. When the dogs stopped, he nearly fell over them because of his focus on what could have been. When he looked back at them, they were still wagging their tails, panting. They were staring at him, making no effort to move. If he did not know better, he would have thought they were daring him to continue without them.
“Aren’t we going to go on?” he asked them. “Don’t we have adventures to explore?”
His dogs continued to stare. When he clapped his hands, patted his thighs, signals he taught them himself, nothing happened. Repeating them a couple times made them rise, come forward a few inches, only to fall back on their haunches. They started to cry when he did them again. Instead of trying one more time, he turned away from them, looked at the path they were avoiding.
It did not look very different from what he already walked. When he stepped forward, his dogs cried out. He turned to them, noticed they had not moved any closer. Another step made them cry again. Their tails stopped wagging. When he stood still and studied them, they resumed their panting and tail wagging. Something about the path was upsetting them, and he was missing it.
“This is one of those times I wish you had human voices.”
Of course, they only wagged their tails in response. He decided to rejoin them, hold their fur and walk them along the path, when he heard something. It was a small sound, almost imperceptible, but it was distinct. Something had been swallowed by water. Instead of grabbing one of the dogs and letting the rest follow, or even calling to them, he set off by himself. He took the challenge without thinking about it.
He could hear them crying behind him, but ignored them. None of them followed. When he passed through yet another section of dense trees, the crying disappeared. It was as eerie as the silent roadway, but he refused to let it stop him. Patrice would have some sort of evidence of the truth of his dreams if it killed him. The desire to prove her wrong was sufficient to propel him anywhere.
A wall of vines halted his advance. Automatically, he reached for the hilt of his sword. He was baffled when his hand closed over emptiness. Determined to pass, he reached for the vines, intent on ripping them apart with his fingers. As soon as he touched them, they parted of their own volition. When he peeked in, he could just make out a human figure gliding beneath the surface of a pool.
She looked akin to a mermaid, her hair fanning out behind her. Her movements were slow, precise, and nearly blended into the waves. He would not have noticed her if the water were not so clear. He was sure he had never beheld water that was so clean, so pure, that he could see the plants swaying at the bottom. The only thing that blocked them from view was the lady herself.
The vines opened more, allowed enough space for him to pass through. He only hesitated a moment, curious who the woman was. He also wanted to know how such an oasis remained hidden from the road. It was barely twenty minutes away. Patrice, and the evidence he was supposed to be collecting for her perusal, was forgotten. All he saw was the woman and the possibility that she had something to do with his dreams.
When she rose from the water, barely winded, she did so in slow motion. Her eyes were closed while she wrung out her hair. It brushed her thighs when she let it go. It was the only thing covering her. Every inch of her skin glistened from water and moonlight. If he had not known where he left his car, and how far he walked, he would have sworn he stepped into another world. She was simply too perfect to be real.
“Are you a dream?” he whispered.
She opened her eyes, stared at him. “You dare look at me, mortal?”
He did not look away, could not. “Who are you?”
“I’m the goddess of all you see.”
Goddess indeed. Though her voice was arrogant, commanding, something in her expression was not right. She looked bored rather than menacing. He moved closer. All she did was watch him. What she was waiting for he did not know, but he did notice the flatness in her gaze. It occurred to him that she had been waiting for him, anticipating him looking at her, but he dismissed the thought. No creature like her had ever graced his dreams.
“Are you enjoying what you see, Somnus?”
Somnus? He looked around. “My name is Samuel.”
“No matter how you hide amongst these mortals, you cannot change your nature.”
“You must be…”
She held up her hand, silenced him. “For daring to speak to me as if you were my equal, your voice will be shut up inside your throat. If you even attempt to speak, you will be transformed into what your behavior mimics.”
“Please,” he whispered. He did not know what was going on, desperately wanted to know.
“For daring to look at me as if you were worthy of my beauty, you will behold darkness from now until a moment before your death.”
He was rendered speechless. Nothing seized his throat, but the world disappeared. Everything went black. The sound of his dogs came back, their whining plaintive. Directly behind them, he could make out the traffic of the road. It had been absent so long, it seemed violent. Had it always been so jarring? He dared not ask the question aloud. The beauty, the goddess, did not seem willing to answer anyway.
One sound was missing through all the chaos. He could not hear the water the goddess was bathing in. A moment before, it was all he could hear besides her voice. When he kneeled, felt along the path, he did not encounter the pool. She was gone as well. If she had been there, she would have either laughed at his ridiculous gesture or cursed him for daring to grope her feet. Carefully, he rose, attempted to navigate back to his dogs.
They were still crying. He hoped they would continue so he could join them. His arms were straight out in front of him, his steps careful, so he would not crash into anything. There were more trees, more rocks, than he remembered. Still, he kept moving. Even if he had lost the path, his dogs’ voices could lead him. Their directions never failed him before. He would be fine as long as they kept whining.
If only he had heeded their earlier cries as warnings, he would not have encountered the goddess. He would not be wondering around in the dark afraid to call for help. He was not sure what he would turn into if he spoke, but he was sure he did not want to know. Still, the thought that the goddess had been waiting for him persisted. Perhaps she set a trap for him, and the dogs detected it. They remained still to protect him.
It was just like something that would happen in one of his dreams. Nothing was ever as it seemed there. Patrice would have to rethink her condemnations. A goddess called him Somnus, recognized him. The name meant something to him, resonated deep within, but he did not know where he heard it. Just as he realized his dog’s voices were not getting any closer, he stumbled, fell, landed on his back.
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