Welcome to Paired Prose on Trope and Dagger! In this feature, we’re presenting two different short stories based on one element! This week’s element: “Frolic“
I thought I was crazy for the longest time. Poring through books filled with nonsense, talking to madmen who have read every old tome with half-clothed girls ever written, eating up the words of starry-eyed obese women who fornicate in parks, all to chase something that I might have lied to myself about. I kept telling myself that it was a fool’s errand, that nobody in their right mind would be doing what I’m doing, that everyone was right when they told me I’d imagined everything, but still I kept at it in spite of myself. If that isn’t the mark of insanity, I don’t know what is.
But it turns out I was right. I was right to plunge down the rabbit hole and chase every deranged lead I came across. I was right to drink the things I drank, to perform every ritual I performed, to desecrate the things I desecrated. I was right because it led me here, to this meadow, illuminated by the full moon, where the creatures are dancing.
I’m crouched just outside of the light, where the treeline still hides me in shadow. My boots dig into the soft dirt and I pull my hat down just a little bit more, in case they catch the white of my eyes. I reach down and touch my pistol, snug in my hip holster, and flick the safety off. I bring my loaded Remington SP-10 from my back and hold it in my hands. They’re shaking more than they ever have before.
I watch them for a few minutes more. They are leaping about in the meadow, reveling in some jubilation that I can’t understand, but I also don’t want to. I have to admit to myself that they look so beautiful, though, their feminine forms ideal, each in their own way. I can’t help but be transfixed by them, in spite of all my hatred. They fly through the air, almost effortlessly, and it makes me wonder how they are tied to the trees at all, the way they practically soar above the grass. They land so lightly and throw their arms wildly in the air, an unchoreographed dance somehow in perfect unison. I want to join them in their jubilation, and can feel myself drawn to them. They are so beautiful, and I can feel my hands stop shaking and loosen their grip on the gun… do I care? It would be so pleasurable to join in the dance, feel their joy…
But a face comes rushing to my mind, a child’s face that reminds me why I’m here, who I’m fighting for, and I realize how I’m thinking. My rage returns and strength flows to my fingers again, tightening their grip once more. One image, that’s all it took to return me to my senses. These wood nymphs will give me what I want or they will die where they dance.
I step out of the shadow, crouched low, but raising my weapon to my shoulder. I try to not make my presence known until the gap is a little smaller, but one of them stops dancing almost immediately. She stands with her back to me, so I keep moving forward, but suddenly she turns, her brown wavy hair flying around her head, and looks directly at me. My heart skips a beat as I see her beautiful eyes, those eyes that I knew so well, once, staring directly into mine. The eyes of my love, Cammy.
“Sam?” she says, and the other three stop their dance, as well, turning to look at me, crouched in the grass.
“Don’t try to run,” I shout, standing as tall as I can and moving faster towards them. “Don’t you all try to go anywhere!”
“Why would we run?” she asks, stepping towards me.
“That’s what you lot do,” I reply. “You run whenever anyone gets close, like frightened mice. Don’t you try it, or I start shooting.”
Cammy smiles at me, raising her arms, beckoning me to an embrace. She’s wearing a wispy dress, blue and green in the moonlight, that hangs from her arms and flows to her bare feet. She looks more beautiful than I’ve ever seen her, and I want to go to her, but I know that it’s not my Cammy anymore.
“We run from those we don’t trust and love, and from men,” Cammy says. “You’re my beautiful wife, which means you’re none of those things. Please, Sam, there’s no need for this. Come join us.”
“You just give her to me,” I say. “You just give me our daughter and let us get the hell out of here, and you can get back to your fucked-up frolicking and whatever it is you’re doing out here! She’s only six, for fuck’s sake!” I feel the tears star to well in my eyes, but I fight them back down. “Give her to me! Give her to me!” I shout, moving my gun from dryad to dryad.
They all stand silently, and I can feel the gun shaking in my hands again. All the hours in the gun range apparently can’t prepare you for pointing them at something that’s looking back at you, that’s talking with you, something that you once loved. Finally, Cammy speaks.
“I can’t,” she says. “Abigail has returned to the bosom of mother nature, she is no longer ours to give.”
“You disappear a year ago with our daughter, I follow some of the weirdest shit I’ve ever come across in order to track you down, and now you’re telling me that our daughter isn’t even here?”
“Mother nature demanded her so that I could join the ranks of the guardians of the forest. We owe her all we’ve ever had. Offering our daughter to Mother Nature was an easy decision.”
“Mother nature?” I say, furious. “Fuck mother nature. You get that bitch to give me my daughter back or I will chop down every damn tree in the forest myself.”
“She does not respond to threats,” Cammy says. “Nor would she be willing to do so anyways. We are the mother’s guardians, and we will not permit you to harm her. I am sorry about our daughter, but sacrifices must be made to join in the mother’s service, and I made mine.”
I see red and fire at the womanly creature to Cammy’s left. Her shoulder and neck are ripped apart and she unleashes an otherworldly shriek. Her body contorts backwards and twists over itself. I hear a sickening groan as her flesh transforms into a tangled mess of wood and leaves. All that is left after a moment is a twisted organism, fixed to the ground, that barely resembles the form that the nymph once was. The others stare at the remnants of their comrade and I turn my gun to the nymph to Cammy’s right.
“Sacrifices?! You sacrificed our daughter to turn into this?!” I scream. The others return their attention to me.
“You cannot understand what it is to be a guardian of the woods,” Cammy says, taking a step towards me. “It is pure ecstasy and joy.”
“You selfish cunt,” I reply.
“And… it is responsibility,” she says. Immediately the creature to Cammy’s right flies at me, shifting in appearance as it leaps. Her fingers turn hard and sharp, her hair turns wild and vine-like, her lovely lips curl into a dangerous snarl. She comes at me fast, but I pull the trigger faster.
I see her head splinter but don’t have a moment to watch her die as the third nymph is leaping over her sisters and coming down upon me. I raise my gun but I’m not fast enough this time. She rakes her claws down, knocking my gun away and dragging the blades across my arm and breast. I fall backward and scramble for my pistol, pulling it somehow, even though my hand is slick with blood.
I raise it to the nymph and fire, sending bullets into her chest, one after another. She howls into the night as her body transforms in front of me. Her skin hardens into wood, moss springs from her mouth. I see her eyes lock on mine as she dies, her face becoming a wooden mask, frozen in bloodlust, before contorting into something unrecognizable.
I scramble to my feet as quickly as I possibly can, frantically looking for Cammy. I hold my pistol out in front of me as I spin around, searching for any sign of her in the moonlight.
“Come back here!” I shout into the dark. “Come back here and you face me, you coward! You monster! You fucking coward bitch!” The darkness of the meadow is the only answer I receive.
I fall to my knees and begin to sob. I can’t believe that I let Cammy get away. I should have gunned her down first. She sacrificed our child to become a monster and I couldn’t even avenge Abigail. I weep for I don’t know how long in the meadow. I mourn my failure, I mourn my lover, and I mourn my daughter.
It’s only when the sun is finally rising that I realize something. I stand, cradling my arm, which is still slowly oozing blood, looking into the sunrise and thinking on what Cammy said earlier. She said that Abigail was no longer hers to give, that she had returned to Mother Nature.
Mother Nature. She talked about Mother Nature as though she were a person. And if wood nymphs are a real thing, then why wouldn’t Mother Nature be a real thing, too? She even implied that Mother Nature could give me my daughter back if she wanted to.
Which means that Mother Nature is out there, and she’s got my daughter. Which means that I have to track that bitch down next. And one way or another, she’s going to give me what I want. Her guardians can be killed, after all, so if she doesn’t give me my daughter, then we’ll find out if she can be, too.