The Oak Prison
by Kendare Blake
When she first saw him, she thought the forest had come to life. For he was tall, and green, and moved with a rickety creaking, as though his legs were woven through with veins of thick, bitter sap. As he approached the water, she watched him like a bullfrog, her brown, wet seaweed hair hidden beneath a lily pad; her eyes protruding from the surface, wide and white and blinking. He could not see her as he bent his aged back to sit upon the husk of the rotting log. He did not notice her as he spoke to the stones, ordering and reordering them, making them tremble and shift. She watched as he licked the quartz from meaty chunks of granite, his muscular tongue grating against the beaten surface, as he bathed stone after stone, like a great mossy cat.
She had never seen anything like him, she, who had grown amongst leaves and limbs and the brown loamy earth; she, who ran with the sleek-furred stag, racing at his side as they followed the glimmer from beneath a crow’s wing. And now, in her innocence, in her curiosity, she rose from the water with a cock of her head like that of an animal, seeking only knowledge, and unaware of the nakedness of her body.
She crept closer, and he, a hunter to the core, remained motionless, until they were face to face, and palm to palm. Until she was close enough to smell the sweet mold in his beard. Until she was close enough to see how his eyes had begun to burn.
He was a man, he told her, and more than a man, but she didn’t understand, and only gleefully offered him icy droplets of water to drink, wrung out from her soaked tendrils of hair. She danced forward, and back, on the velvet pads of her feet, teasing the searching tips of his fingers as they slid upon her pale skin. Her laugh was an echo of the bubbling of the stream. She was no fledgling, no child newly hatched; she knew a mating dance when she saw one. But the man made of trees bore no scarlet feathers on his chest or tail, he had no horns or antlers to push and lock. He did not croon, or bellow, but only made weak, whimpering noises from his wet, red lips, hidden behind a tangle of gray-green beard.
But he had many tricks. He waved his hand, and wind came like a shock through the branches, stripping the leaves and laying them in piles before her feet. He spoke fire, and the piles burned, curling in on themselves and sending their smoky blood into the sky in wordless letters, and she clapped her hands in wonderment even as she heard them screaming. Yet still she leapt away from his touch, and in a moment of frustration he spread his arms, and erupted into a flock of crows, cawing and flapping and smelling of moss.
She was not to be outdone; she knew her share of tricks, and she threw herself against the wet rocks, slicing herself into a dozen silver fish, darting into the stream to evade the black, piercing beaks. He chased her until dusk, by wing and fin and hoof, piecing himself together and breaking himself apart, always too slow, and she kept him coming with glimpses of perfect white flesh, fleeing into the trees.
She licked dew from the bellies of leaves and tore mushrooms from the ground with her teeth, but still, when night came, she was exhausted, exhilarated, and brushing salt off of her body flung herself down beside him on the bank of the river, where he lay spent and smoldering. Before she slept she entwined her fingers in his beard, parting it to see the softness of his lips; she pushed back his cloak hood to prod the furrowed lines of his face.
In the hours of the gray dawn she awoke joyous, covered in a bridal dress of spider’s silk, bound to the earth in glittering layers of translucent gauze. Her tinkling laughter roused the groom, and he fell upon her in the half-light, tearing away the finely spun garment, sending spiders skittering into the grass. Now he found his bellow, in a victory that shook her bones. Her cries startled the birds.
The day came, and he would not move; he would only lie, panting and pawing at her, so she left him to run with the stag when it came to rub its bloody velvet on the branch of a tree. But she returned. She would always return, breathless and ready to lie with him, a nymphet’s mute smile on her fair cheeks, and dying leaves strung through her hair.
He showed her how to call the quail, miming a reed flute with his fingers, and she clapped when they came, bobbing along on tiny feet. Then he broke their warm, feathered necks and placed them on heated stones to burn. And she wept, and moaned, and thrashed upon the ground. She shrieked when he put the meat to his lips. So he waved his hand, and the drippings turned to blood, and the crisp skin to fat, and feather by feather the quail once again became quail. And she laughed with joy as he parted his robes, saying, “bewitched, bewitched,” from his wet, hungry mouth.
Days came and went, as she ran through the forests and splashed in the streams, and he grew thin, leaned up against a great oak trunk. Night after night she returned to him, and he spent himself with her, and she did not notice the ivy twined around his ankles. She squealed at the roughness of his hands, but in the dark did not see the flaking bark that spread across his palms like cracking gray scales. She left him with the sun and returned with the dusk to wrap herself around his heavy body. She didn’t notice when he grew stiffer and ceased to speak. Theirs was a strange marriage.
And then one morning she woke, and blinking against the light sent searching arms across the grass for her beloved. What she found instead was an oak tree, strong and twisted and covered with moss and vine. At first she was filled with wonder, playing her hands over the surface of the bark, until her fingers found the familiar furrows of his brow. All that day she did not run, only beat against the oak until her small white fists were ruined and raw, and her young bride’s tears had saturated the soil.More stories like this by topic: Asian-American authors, Authors of color, Fairy tales, Women authors