It begins with the forest, and the river, as it always does. Those origin places. Those quiet places that speak of home. Birdsong, the notes of water over rocks. Rustle of leaves and breaking of twigs. Melody of the green place. Around me the cathedral of trees feels older than time. Gnarled roots. Moss beneath, canopies above. I'm lifted and calmed all at once. The peace here is unlike anything else. As I approach the river I see her, luminescent. Standing waist-high in the waters as if lit from within. I think of the first time I saw her. More dream than memory. She is tracing patterns in the water with her hands; dancing with the river. A harmony I can almost hear. She turns at my approach, and smiles.
"Paul," she says, full of affection yet slightly distracted. "Won't you join me?"
I wade into the river until I find myself beside her. We talk of other times, previous meetings. She asks me about Kiskuh, and riots, and my sister Rachel. I tell her I don't want to speak of the terrifying demoness or any worldly concerns. Today I just want to be a boy. Just a sixteen year old boy standing in the waters with his friend. She takes my hand, knowing full well how exhausting these years have been for me.
Her touch gives me strength, as though the faint glow beneath her skin shares itself with me. She tells me the river is singing to us. Things of now, and things to come. This place of story where insights can be seen and known. She asks me again if I'm truly well, if I would speak my heart with her. I glance away, slightly ashamed, and tell her I'm fine.
"Submerge with me," she asks, trying to hide her sorrow. I’m hesitant. I know how powerful she is, how much she carries. But it’s hard to resist this girl who shines.
Embracing beneath the waters, our arms around each other. Our flesh is held by the flesh of the river.
In sweetness, in vigil and depth, we drift.
Glimmers, voices, stories. Pieces of light like the many faces of a diamond. Past, present, future. Until death or parting. Too brief for context or clarity, but I notice red. There is red in the water around us.
Suspended in a single breath, it seems, or perhaps a thousand breaths. This girl I love; she feels utterly ancient in my arms. We float, and I wish I was kissing her.
I wish she was kissing me.
At last we part from our embrace, breaking the river's surface, emerging once again into the cold light of day. I realise the river has carried us deeper into the forest. Dusk is perhaps only a few hours away now.
As we wade towards the river's edge and onto dry land she asks me what I saw in our embrace. Just dreams, I tell her. The silly dreams of a teenaged boy. She looks, smiles, but there is such sadness in it.
"That's upsetting, because you know I still want to give you that gift. From my heart to yours. At least think on it, Paul. For me."
With equal sadness I shrug, looking away too. "I have all the gifts I need."
We sit on grass near the river's edge, pondering our delicate friendship, letting the air dry our clothes and our skin. She takes my hand, like she wants to tell me something, and for some reason it makes me angry. I just want to enjoy the quiet with her. She knows the chaos of my life. I gently pull my hand away. She shakes her head and tells me the crows are calling me. I tell her I hear nothing of crows. She jabs a thumb over her shoulder at the treeline at our backs.
"Love endures, Paul," she tells me quietly. "That's what it does. It endures."
I force a smile full of hidden bitterness and swirl my fingers in the mud, pretending to dance with the river's edge. Suddenly I'm pulled away. Then waking, walking, shifting, until I can return.
When I find the forest again the skies have grey in them. The trees and leaves and river are just as reassuring, yet there is an anxiety in the air now. I’m not at rest, and the forest knows it. In the woods I notice light. I notice her. I follow the glow until I’m deep in the cathedral of trees, surrounded by life. The green everywhere is a comfort but I know the day will be fading soon.
I feel the first few drops of rain on my face. I touch my cheek and see red on my hands. A light spatter of blood from above.
I’m worried now.
Ahead of me the shining girl is sitting amid the undergrowth, eyes closed. There are insects crawling across her shoulders, but she is unconcerned.
"I know how Kiskuh hurt you," she tells me. "I know how much they all hurt you. Then, and now, and to come."
I sit down beside her, trying to ignore the light spatter of red rain falling.
"I don't think you do know, to be frank. But I'm very grateful you're here."
She seems hurt by my words and I regret them immediately, but not enough. For some reason I’m angry with her. I don't want to be angry with the most beautiful thing I have ever felt or seen. In an attempt at tenderness I mutter, "It hurts me, this dreaming. This broken selfhood. I haven't story enough to tell any of this."
She frowns, almost a scowl, and looks away. "It hurts me too, you know."
I wish I was kissing her, this shining thing. I put my hand in hers and I feel her light. I've saddened her, and I feel awful. I tell her she was the only one there for me when the demoness tried to steal my sister away. She was the only one when the streets were on fire and wraiths ruled the rooftops.
That darkest of days.
She peers at me and tells me that despite all this I’m still choosing to turn away from the gift she wants to give me.
But I already know what her gift will be. It will be a kiss that I should treasure. A beautiful kiss of such unimaginable sorrow and pain. And, as always, I will be expected to endure. I look away and tell her I simply cannot carry anything more. I have enough gifts. I have her friendship. The greatest gift of all.
She swallows, nods, and we say no more about it.
As friends we climb to our feet and journey deeper into the trees. The sound of the river grows distant. The melody of the forest becomes quieter, heavier.
We come upon the broken crow in the undergrowth. Its wings tremble, its neck is twisted. The bird is close to death. Around us we hear other crows cawing, unseen. They have gathered for one of their own. My friend frowns and mutters of how familiar this is, and how sad. An ancient future. I ask her what she means but she brushes my concerns away and tells me to focus on the blackbird.
I have never sung a dreaming thing to life again. It seems impossible to me, even here, despite my fondness for stories.
"You must be brave, Paul, and sing within your heart. In rhythm with its pulse."
I laugh, raising an eyebrow. "This is a thing of dreams, this bird."
"Still it lives. Still it is flesh. You know that."
I sigh and nod and take the crow into my arms. I fold its wings back into place and hold it to my chest.
But, in truth, I have no song in there but her. A song so heavy in my heart that I doubt it could ever quicken the pulse of this dying thing.
I sing of crosses, kingdoms, stolen children and burning cities. I sing of age beyond my years. Radiant, eternal dreaming, and angels in the woods. I cry a little, then a lot. Until I'm sobbing, doubled over with the dying crow held against my breast.
The shining girl has tears in her eyes as she witnesses me.
And then the wings of the crow suddenly burst to life again, fanning and flapping in my arms. It breaks free of my hold, somehow healed, and launches into the sky. It glides and circles above us as the cawing of its brethren fills our ears.
Waking, walking, shifting, until I can return. A new kind of delight fills our steps among the trees. I feel lighter on my feet. My friend seems giddy with happiness for me, her glow even brighter than usual in the gathering dusk. It is shining through her skin, her eyes and even her hair. We hold hands. We act silly and dance around to amuse each other. We play hide and seek among the trees. Now I'm able to lift the lilting leaves, and heal the broken stems of plants we come across. I feel our joy side by side, and I think about kissing her. I think about the depth and sadness of that kiss, feeling her heart as I do. Her heart is vast. Breath-taking and mysterious. I know her kiss might destroy me, in the end.
She senses my thoughts and pulls away a little, dampening her frivolity in act of mercy that makes me ache.
I’m still a boy. Only sixteen. But here among the trees I’m also much more. In a moment of uncharacteristic disregard I decide to share my broken heart with her.
"I was raped once, you know."
She peers into the undergrowth, head lowered. "I know."
"More than once, really. Not by Kiskuh. By wraith and shadow, and greed. It wasn’t entirely physical, but it was very, very real."
I can see that she is trying to hold back tears. "I know, my love."
"Your gift. It's a kiss, isn't it?"
The tears roll down her face now. "Yes, it is. But a kiss of true love. A kiss that has another gift hidden inside it. A secret within a secret."
I ask her what hides within the kiss she wants to give me.
Horror, sorrow and beauty. I already know I would find all these things upon her lips and within this secret name she speaks of. Truth enough to end a world, or birth one. I know how much she carries. More than me. So much more. I can see it in her eyes and feel it in her light. So sweet, despite the burden. I've known it since the first sight and song. The first time her skin was with my skin, in dreams.
Twilight deepens into darkness as we are swallowed by the forest. Its melody changes as the night creatures join the chorus.
The cabin is framed against a hillside of exposed rock at the edge of a little clearing. Only the dreaming light of the moon illuminates the cabin in the darkness. My friend knows I'm terrified. Wordless, she urges me on. I feel her heart and intention like a wave pushing me towards the cabin.
I know she can't join me in there.
"Beloved," she mutters, and I look back. "Love endures. Remember that."
I swallow, turn away from her empathic gaze, and walk towards the cabin.
There is no song in my heart now. No ancient futures or newborn pasts. Only fear. And I think about what I’m unable to tell my friend, though I'm sure she knows already. Part of me wishes to be annihilated in that cabin. Not just death, but a final death. Because I cannot share my truth with her. That I’m tired of waking, walking, shifting and returning. I’m tired of forests and offered kisses and light that shines.
I’m the boy who saw the whole world die, but I was left alive. I was there when the first stone of hell was laid, and set. I recall how heaven bled.
Inside the cabin, in the darkness, my breath is stolen from my lungs. A talon fist closes around my heart.
There, above the fireplace, my eight year old sister is nailed to the wall in a hideous parody of crucifixion. Nails driven through her palms and feet. And worse, her throat has been slashed open. Rachel's entire form is soaked in her own blood.
"Holy Mother of God..."
I press a fist to my lips in devastation. My little sister's eyes suddenly snap open and she lifts her head. "Brother Bear..."
"Oh, Christ in Heaven help me..."
But I fear there is nothing divine in this cabin with me.
"Help me, Paul..."
I hurry to her, a hand at her cheek, my gaze in hers, yet all too aware of the bloodied, gaping wound in her throat. My mind is a ruin. "Oh, God, Rach..."
"Rach, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Forgive me..."
Suddenly she spits in my face and begins to laugh. A hideous laugh, deep and deranged. She hisses and snaps her teeth at me like an animal.
"Kiss me," she demands. "Look upon your Christos, and love him." Nausea and madness skitter through me like insects in my gut. "Am I not beautiful, Paul? Don’t you want me?"
"What…what the fuck are you?"
"You know exactly what I am. I am the God of All Worlds. The God of Sacrifice. Love me. Endure me."
This sickening thing imitating my sister begins to laugh again. I clamp both hands to the wound in her throat, and I imagine the shining girl. I imagine kissing her, in light. In peace. Under my breath I speak my heart, as best I can. "I love you, I love you, I love you..."
Rachel peers at me with wild eyes and a blood-smeared grin. "God, you're a fucking idiot..."
"I love you, I love you, I love you..."
"I shall send my angels for you, Paul. All of them. I'll slaughter every single child upon this earth, eventually. I will eat all of you. Tell that to your loving God. Because in the face of a thing like me, love is just a lie..."
I press my eyes shut and tell it the only truth I know. "I'll be waiting, you sick fuck, because I'm a lie that lives forever."
A surge of power passes from its wounded throat into my palms, like black lightning. I collapse onto the cabin floor, spiralling into deeper darkness.
I awake outside, among the trees. I’m covered in vines, lying in the undergrowth whilst being cradled by my shining friend. Her beautiful blue eyes peer down at me, full of love and sorrow and relief. I try to ask what happened but she shushes me. She tells me to reserve my strength. I can feel the vines twisted around me, feeding me life, calming my psyche and strengthening my dreamflesh.
"I thought I was going to die in there," I murmur weakly.
"Part...part of me wanted to."
"I know, Paul. Please be quiet. I'm trying to heal you."
I look down at my own hands. The centre of my palms are faintly aglow beneath my flesh, from where they had touched Rachel's wounded throat. Or, rather, the throat of the thing that took her form. I ask the shining girl what it means but she tells me again to be quiet. So I listen to the melody of the forest. Rustling leaves, cracking twigs, unseen things moving in the undergrowth. Twilight is taking the sky now. Dawn must be approaching, and I wonder how long I remained in the darkness with that thing.
"I want it."
"Hush, beloved. Let me work."
"Listen to me. I want your kiss. I need it."
She peers down at me. I can feel both her desire and her hesitation. "Paul...it's...it's not a thing to be given or taken lightly. I commend your bravery, but you are so exhausted. A broken boy. Soon to be a broken man. I've seen it. I've seen how it hurts you."
"Let me be broken with you then. Forget caution. Let me die carrying something of yours. I know how much you carry. Let me ease your sorrow."
"You're crazy, Paul. I truly love you, but please give this decision the care it deserves."
"You know I love you too, and I don't even know your name."
"Suddenly you want my kiss, and the secret name hiding within it? Just like that?"
"Please, just kiss me. Before I lose my courage."
She does as I ask, quickly pressing her lips to mine. As desperate as I am. The kiss is warm and sweet and lingers just long enough. Just a kiss, kind and true, but I know I'm changed inside. When she pulls away I lick my lower lip and smile up at her. She smiles back, almost bashful now.
"Tell me my name," I ask quietly.
She gazes at me for a moment before responding. "Kasi."
Waking, walking, shifting and returning. I have been away, in the world of Man. I can still feel her kiss upon my lips, but I’m sober now. I'm no longer drunk with lost love and dreaming. The joy of her kiss feels oddly distant, despite how I adore her. I'm afraid to look into her eyes again. Afraid she'll see a rash, impulsive boy unworthy of her depth.
When I find her, morning light is slicing through the canopies. Fallen leaves are swirling in patterns around her skirts as he commands them with her dancing hands. She senses me and turns. The leaves lose their enchantment and flutter to the ground. She seems happy to see me, but cautious. Nervous, as I expected.
I ask her what this secret name within her kiss actually means. This new name of mine. She tells me it means Beloved, Shining One, and Mirror. She mutters something under her breath. I ask her what she said but she tries to brush away my curiosity. I ask again.
She peers at me, frowning. "It means all those things. Shining, Mirror, Beloved. But it can also mean reckless. Rash. Dangerous. Frightening."
I can feel that we both already miss the open sweetness of our friendship, before kisses and names were given. I know both of us are hurting, unsure of what we did. A commitment that perhaps neither of us is prepared for. To be so reckless, and to love something so reckless. I watch her turn away with sorrow in her heart, as though she has read enough of my thoughts already.
We wander, we sit, we hold hands, but things feel strange now.
"Is Rachel going to die one day?” I ask her quietly. “Is that why it took her form? Is that why Kiskuh tried to take her from me that night?"
"I don't know. I can't know any of that, Paul. Too many futures. Too many choices. All I can do is love you, and sing with the river. All you can do is love me, and endure."
I take a deep, careful breath, nodding as I peer at the sheer beauty of the trees all around us. The forest is magnificent. In silence it seems to connect us a little better. She offers a sad smile, telling me that she can't take it back. The kiss and the secret name within it. A choice that must be honoured.
"But I don’t want you to take it back,” I tell her. “I know you’re in pain, just like me. I will not be a coward, my love. I’m terrified, but I will not let you carry this alone. Not after what I saw in there. What I felt. If that’s reckless I don’t care.”
“You’re incredibly romantic, Paul. But it comes with a price.”
I lie down beside her while she sits, and place my head in her lap. “I think you mean Kasi. ‘You’re incredibly romantic, Kasi.’ ”
She laughs, a genuine laugh. My heart sings at the sound of it but still I’m afraid, and confused. I feel so young beside her, so mortal, so hardened and dark. Inexperienced in these ways of dreaming and light.
"Tell me something, my love. Isn't this just one version of our story? Just one version of our lives? This realm of dreams where humans and spirits imagine each other into rapture, or devastation? Isn't that why the nameless thing came to the earth, dressed as my sister? So that humanity has something to vanquish one day? To indirectly deepen our passion, so we can all know each other in new ways? Didn't you and I call each other here because we both so love the forest, and Mankind?"
She smiles down at me as tears well in her eyes. "Paul, that’s beautiful. I think so, my love. I truly hope so."
“Then maybe there’s no real reason to be afraid.”
“Maybe, sweetheart. But suffering is all too real, and I hate to see things suffer. It kills me inside.”
“Me too,” I tell her. “That’s why I had to accept your gift, reckless or not. If you suffer, my love, I want to suffer with you. Even if it really scares me.”
She kisses me again as I rest my head in her lap. She is touched by my words. She knows I mean them. “Thank you, Kasi. You’re my sweetheart. You always have been.”
"I wish I could be with you, you know. Deeper than this. Realer than this."
"I know. But I haven’t even been born yet. We’re both children of war. You have work to do, Paul. We both do. For the soil and the stars."
I frown at her, perplexed, in love. "I'm still not sure how you know all this."
"My Father told me."
I sigh, confused. "Angels?” She nods. “Please tell your name at last. I ache to know."
She looks away. "I have no name. None I can speak to you here, at least."
"But your father..."
"My Father is dead. For now." I can feel the torment in her voice, the heaviness in her breast. I want to reach out to her but I can feel her bristle at the thought of it.
Quietly I tell her, "I still don't understand."
"Better that you don't."
A rustling slither suddenly fills the air. The two of us share an unsure glance at the source of the sound. Vines seem to emerge from the undergrowth, snaking towards us. At first I think it's one of her own enchantments, but then I sense her fear. I lift my head from her lap and sit up, as the vines suddenly burst from the ground. They coil themselves around her with terrifying speed.
She cries, "Paul…!"
I grab her arm but she is immediately torn from my grasp. She screams again but moments later her mouth is covered. The vines are dragging her into a cavity in the forest floor. Suddenly everything is a nightmare. I watch as my nameless love is bound and pulled mercilessly into the earth. Her eyes are wide and terrified, and then she's gone.
The melody of the forest quickly resumes, sounding now like a horrifying parody of peace. I'm alone in the woods and clawing desperately at the earth. Sobbing, in vain. I can barely comprehend what has just occurred and I think of Kiskuh, and wraiths, and the crucified mockery that took my sister's form.
It seems that hell has indeed found our quiet place.
The forest melody is growing faint now. The skies above the treeline are darkening to a midwinter grey. The air is suddenly colder and the breeze gathers into a wind blowing through clearing. I climb to my feet again, standing for a moment in the unsettling grey.
"Well, look at you. Fucking hypocrite."
I spin round and see a tall man leaning casually against a tree. Blue jeans, black jacket. For a moment I can't process what I'm looking at, until I realise I'm peering at an older version of myself. Late thirties. The older Paul has a knife in his left hand. He smiles, and I’m shaken at seeing such intensity in what appear to be my own eyes.
"Ain't love grand?” he says almost jokingly, but his words are full of fury. “Genocide, the death of innocents, rape, murder, assault. And war, let's not forget war. Especially holy war. And all wars are holy, aren't they, tearful one?"
I back away, as angry as I am afraid now. "Leave me alone, you freak. I know what you are."
"Oh, do you? Pray tell."
"You're fucking evil incarnate."
"Am I? I'm you, idiot."
"I don't think so."
The rage in his voice is terrifying. "You're a fool. I don't give a fuck what you think. You're nothing but an ignorant child, bloated on the spoils of war and slavery. Too unwittingly devoted to your wraith-priests to know anything about real freedom, beyond your vague posturing. Freedom hurts, kid. Love hurts. Cherishing someone hurts. And freeing an entire race from slavery? That takes teamwork, and sacrifice. Something you know nothing about."
"Leave me alone."
"Better that the self-proclaimed God of All Worlds devours you right here, right now. Better that than to offer false hope to the hopeless. A hope you don't really want to fight for, right?"
He laughs at me, tilting his head. "Oh, they fucked me many times. They fucked both of us, didn’t they? And the lost ones. The grieving ones. The tormented ones. Who're you fighting for, kid? For her? Bitch, you don't even know her name.” Tears are rolling down my cheeks now, but he won’t stop. "You think I give a fuck about some little nature sprite when the entire world is in peril? Do you? ANSWER ME."
I feel pinned by the wildness in his eyes. "I don't...I don't know."
"Well, I do give a fuck about her, and all of them. But do you?
"Don't fucking lie to me, kid. Don't you recognise me?"
"Oh, I'm more than just you. I'm something terrifying. But I'm trying to help you. I just can't stand cowards and posers."
"Please leave me alone."
He takes a few steps towards me, knife in hand. "I need you to have depth, Paul. Real depth. Not perfection, not poise, but depth. And strength."
"I don't understand..."
"I need you to endure."
There among the trees I shake my head and begin to cry. "I can't..."
"I'm so tired."
"I don't care if you’re tired. Abuse victims are tired. Grieving parents of murdered children are tired. Families broken and displaced by endless wars are tired. You have no fucking idea what tired is yet. Believe me."
"Then just kill me,” I tell him. “Because this endless hall of mirrors is just horrifying."
"She won't let you die yet, and neither will I." He moves closer, knife in hand. "Listen to me. I've seen everything you've seen, and more. Much more. I've seen angels fall from heaven and hit the ground like gutted stars. Wailing, shrieking, because they betrayed their Father. Because they can't even remember their Mother. So, who the fuck are you, kid? Are you loved, are you shining? Are you a mirror when it's needed? Tell me your name."
"I can't take this,” I confess to the older Paul. “I'm just a boy. I don't even know who the fuck I am, really. All I know is poetry and stories. That’s it. All I have is dreams."
He is peering at me, but his expression softens slightly. "Me too, kid. Me too. Your mother, and Rachel, and the shining girl. If you care about them, show me. If you love her, prove it. Honour the kiss she gave you, angel."
We are face to face now. I gaze at this man, this thing that appears to be an older version of myself. I really do want kindness to be real. I want true love to actually mean something. In my heart I give in completely to her gift, her kiss, and the name hidden within it. I feel my defences crumble as I glance down at the knife in the hand of the older Paul.
"Ok. Do it."
In an almost graceful motion he whips at me with the knife, slitting open my throat.
I am slumped in a sitting position against the base of a tree, the cathedral of life all around me. I recognise I'm bleeding to death but I'm struck by the magnificence of the trees. Leaves like a sea of green held in the branches. I can feel my own blood spilling across my chest as my heart-rate quickly slows. I have only minutes left, maybe less. At first it’s agonising and strange, then only strange. I can't really feel any pain now, nor barely move. My throat is too ruined to speak even if I wanted to.
Before me, the older Paul squats in the undergrowth. Bloodied knife still in hand.
"You're going to die here, Paul. Alone in these woods. But it's going to be ok. I'm sorry we had to do it this way, my boy. But Love is the most important thing in Creation. All else must serve, consciously or otherwise. So, let's see what kind of wolf is left in these bones. Are you ready to tell me your name?”
There is warmth in his eyes now, and I manage to smile as my consciousness begins to slip away.
My Name is Kasi.
"Then perhaps love might actually have a shot at conquering all of this, one day."
The knife in his hand dissolves. The skin of the older Paul begins to split and bleed and blacken. He begins to give off smoke, as through igniting from within. Then his hands and face suddenly burst into flame. His entire form begins to glow and crumble into dust, revealing the shining girl beneath.
She is peering at me with eyes of such tenderness and gratitude. A love in her expression unlike anything I've ever known.
She nods, her heart in mine. I smile at her as I bleed to death against the tree, as my life is finally extinguished.
Embracing beneath the waters, our arms around each other. Our flesh is held by the flesh of the river.
In sweetness, in vigil and depth, we drift. Glimmers, voices, stories. Pieces of light like the many faces of a diamond. Past, present, future. Until death or parting. I notice red. There is red in the water around us.
Suspended in a final breath, or perhaps a first breath. This girl I love; she feels utterly ancient in my arms. We float, and I’m kissing her.
She is kissing me in return.
At last we part from our embrace, breaking the river's surface, emerging into the warmth of day. We wade towards the river's edge and collapse on the shore, smiling and peering at each other, our feet still in the water.
She nuzzles close to me now, her face against my neck. "Are you ok, my love?"
"I'm ok. I was very afraid. I was literally dying. But I'm ok now."
"Dying? Kasi, are you serious?" She peers at me questioningly. She looks horrified but I say nothing. I continue to hold her. She nuzzles me again. Quietly she says, "The river runs with truth, my love. And spiritual light. Those visions it offers are very real. I drowned there once, until I found you. Please tell me you’re joking. Please tell me the waters touched you with kindness."
"Then tell me what you saw, my love. Tell me what you lived."
"There was a gift. You gave me a gift. It was my name."
"I don’t understand. I’ve already given you your name. I’m the one who’s waiting now."
"You've been nameless for too long, I think."
She nudges me playfully. "Kasi, I've been waiting with bated breath for your answer since we first met!"
I can hear the genuine delight in her voice. "And she gave it to you? The river gave your heart my secret name at last?"
"She did, actually. A name that's threaded through many stories and legends, I suspect. Just like my magnificent girl. Of dawning light, and life. And power.”
She looks at me again, grinning now. "Kasi, just tell me! Don't keep me in suspense any longer..."
I smile, pressing my lips to her ear as I whisper her name.
* * *