She told him how to track the flights of different birds, anticipate their paths, and be aware of their habits and natures. Some of their calls he found quite easy to learn, but others were more difficult. Lesya worked on these with him, and he felt her magic opening more and more doors within him. Some of what he learned was not magic at all, however, and it was always the most obscure advice that seemed to make things click into place. Think of butter melting in a pan, she said, and the next time he tried whistling a northern shrike’s call, he could have been the bird itself. Smell the bloom of the rose, she suggested, and as he whistled, he heard yellow warblers answering from the trees around the clearing.
They walked into the forest and she taught him more calls—elk, bear, bison, caribou, moose, cougar. Some he found easier to imitate than others, but it was never the shape of his mouth or throat that caused the difficulties. Lesya guided him past the physical constraints nature had given him, and deeper inside there was a spiritual contact she taught him to make with these animals. He stretched, listening to her voice to guide his way, and sometimes the contact came quickly. Once that touch was made, he would smell the scent of the animal in question, hear it sniffling across the ground seeking its prey’s trail or crunching tough grass between its grinding teeth. He would see it in his mind’s eye, and as he attempted its call, so his image of the creature would utter its own roar, whine, or growl. He could reach out and feel the touch of its fur or pelt on his hands, and at the same time his own skin seemed to bristle, and he felt the cool touch of unseen ground beneath his feet.
Other times, seeking out an animal was much more difficult, and he soon realized that it was some animals’ stealth that kept them hidden away. He spent a long time reaching out in his search for a cougar, and as the sun dipped toward the forests and hills in the west, he began to despair of ever realizing one. He had uttered the roar of a grizzly bear and the mournful howl of a wolf, but such incredible feats suddenly seemed insignificant if he could not touch a cougar. He felt like a fool for thinking that way, and perhaps arrogant in his newfound talent, but the sense of failure at the end of that day did not sit well with him.
“Perhaps they’re too far away,” he said. “Maybe there aren’t any close enough for me to…” Still he could not vocalize what he was doing, because he did not really know.
But Lesya shook her head, her lovely hair swaying as it caught the dusky light. “There’s one watching us right now,” she said.
Jack caught his breath, staring at her. “Where?”
Lesya closed her eyes and whispered, “Find it with me.”
Jack tried. He stretched, reaching out with his senses, and this time where he sensed nothing, he probed deeper. Lesya closed her hand around his, he felt her claws, and then he touched the cougar, growling low in his throat, looking down into the valley from the high mountains and focusing on the small clearing and the people there.
He gasped, opened his eyes, and sat back against the tree.
“So you see,” Lesya said, but she said no more.
“Yes,” Jack said, nodding. “But I’m still not sure I believe.”
“You wait here,” she said. “I’ll go and cook dinner. Something special tonight to celebrate, and a glass of wine to seal what we have become.” She walked away, and Jack watched her go. What we have become, she’d said.
Jack frowned, chilled.
What we have become.
Jack waited in the clearing and watched the sun set. All the while he was thinking about what had happened to him, and what they had done. He felt renewed, remade as a larger, more elaborate version of his old self, and the things he had achieved were amazing. No one will believe, he thought, but that idea did not concern him. This was not something to share, an ability to wear on his sleeve and boast about on cold nights around warm fires. This was intensely personal, and it reinforced his connection to the wild.
As the sunlight splashed across the wooded, hilly horizon, broken into shards by trees and ridges, he cast his mind out again as Lesya had shown him, trying to sense past the forests she inhabited. He felt a thrill of fear doing so, because in all her teachings she had never gone beyond a certain point. It’s dangerous, she would say, or, It can’t work that far. But Jack was a man who had to experience such things for himself.
Even Lesya’s word was not the same as experience.
So he probed outward, eyes half closed and half open so that he could watch the cabin. The oil lamps were lit in there, and he saw shadowy movement within as Lesya went about preparing their meal. Maybe she will sense what I’m doing, he thought. But he could not let that scare him off. Part of what he felt for her was fear, yes, and there was still something about her that he could not quite perceive as clearly as he’d have liked…but he remained his own man.
He pushed out, out, past familiar forests to less-known lands. And then somewhere before him was a presence he knew so well—the wolf! It started at his intrusion, howled; and it was so far away that he could not hear it on the dusky air.
Jack smiled, delighted, and tried to connect with the mind of the beast he had come to know as his spirit guide. But then he frowned. The contact remained, but the wolf was pacing back and forth across his mind, skirting the boundary of Lesya’s domain as if keen to enter but unable. He sensed concern and fear, and a pent-up frustration that was almost violent in its potential.
“What is it?” he muttered, and in his mind the wolf growled.
“Jack!” Lesya called.
He sat up and opened his eyes fully, looking across the clearing at the cabin.
“Jack!” Her voice sounded urgent.
“Yes,” he said, trying to affect tiredness. “I was dozing.”
“Dozing,” she echoed. “Well, the food’s ready now, if you’ll rouse yourself.” She disappeared back into the cabin.
Jack stood, stretched, and tried to feel his way back toward the wolf. Perhaps because he’d been disturbed, or due to the fear of discovery, he felt somehow blocked now, unable to probe with his senses anywhere beyond the boundary of this small clearing. It was as if the traces of magic that Lesya had put inside him were not within his control.
Why don’t you come to me? he thought. And he remembered the wolf’s growl, and its pacing, and he realized that was exactly what it was trying to do.
Lesya had prepared a dish of fried meat—Jack thought mutton, though he had seen no sheep in the area—with roasted vegetables. It was exquisite, and his stomach rumbled as they sat in the chairs and ate. Lesya was quiet, contemplative. She even looked beautiful like that, and Jack knew there was no expression that would ever steal her beauty.
“What is it?” he asked at last. Plates emptied, mugs filled with wine, they sat on deep soft rugs by the open fire, leaning in to each other. They were both staring into the flames.
“I don’t want it to go wrong this time,” she whispered.
Jack frowned. Is she talking to me? The flames flittered; a sap bubble in one of the logs spat with a loud snap.
“Jack,” she said, turning to him at last. “I love you.”
His heart thudded, and he blinked several times to clear his vision.
“And you have to stay with me now.”
“What? Stay?” I don’t belong here, he thought. This is not my home, home is somewhere I need to be, and other such thoughts jumbled over each other, as if Lesya’s use of that single word had opened a door in his mind behind which he had been holding his true nature prisoner.
How long had he been here, now? Many weeks, surely. All along he had been pushing to the back of his mind the knowledge that in time he would have to return home, and as recently as days ago he would have said he wished he could remain with Lesya forever. But something had changed. Something that sent ripples of unease through him.
“Yes, Jack,” she said, leaning in so that her nose was almost touching his. Her eyes were wide, and he saw a sheen of perspiration across her top lip. Was Lesya truly nervous? “Because I love you, and you love me, and I’ve told you so many secrets.”
“Love,” he said, savoring the word like the fine wine in his mug. And just where does that fine wine come from?
“This place…it’s magical, and it’s mine, but…I get so lonely.” She looked away, frowning.
“Lesya, I’m not sure I can—”
“He’ll kill you,” she whispered. “If you go out into the forests alone, he’ll kill you. I’ve felt his rage growing out there, his jealousy, and he might be weak, but madness gives him strength.”
“You told me you’d protect me from your father,” he said.
“And I will. But not if you go out there on your own.”
And there it was. A threat. It felt to Jack as though a curtain had been drawn back to reveal parts of Lesya she had never before allowed him to see. He nodded slowly, turning back to the fire so that she could not read his eyes.
Lesya leaned against him again, resting one hand on his leg and molding herself to him. Her scent overwhelmed him, her hair was a sensuous breath against his neck and cheek, and he could hear the steady rhythm of her breathing. Love, Jack thought, and he tried to ally that word with what he felt for Lesya.
Not if you go out there on your own…
“What are you thinking?” she asked, and she sounded almost desperate.
“Nothing,” Jack said.
Prisoner, he thought.
Next day after breakfast, Jack took a walk to the edge of the clearing. He felt Lesya’s disapproval, and all the way he could sense her eyes on the back of his head, watching, waiting. But even though the past few days had exposed many wonderful things to him, and he felt more whole than he ever had before, Lesya’s warnings last night had set a distance between them.
He sat beside a rock and looked back at the cabin, and when he waved, Lesya waved in response. She went about tending her garden. And she never turned her back on him.
I’m being guarded, he thought. She’s always watching. So he leaned back against the rock and looked at the sky, closing his eyes and willing himself to relax. The thought of running flitted through his mind, but then something else crossed its path.
Jack’s eyes snapped open. He breathed deeply, opening his senses, welcoming in the smells and sounds, the feel and taste of the air, all as Lesya had shown him. And he knew that ten feet behind the rock stood a wolverine.
He tried to breathe evenly, heart racing with excitement. Now’s the time to try, he thought, and he probed outward with his mind, welcoming the creature’s senses as his own. It paused in its sniffling, sensing his presence even though it could not see or smell him. Jack froze. Then the creature let out a startled cry, and turned and fled back between the trees.
Jack was exhausted. Sweat dripped down his face and sides, and he suddenly felt as if he’d run for miles. Panting, he leaned against the rock and closed his eyes again.
When the footsteps approached, he knew that she wanted him to hear her.
“It takes time,” she said.
Jack opened his eyes. “After yesterday, with the cougar, I thought—”
“I helped you with that, Jack, remember?”
“Yes,” he said. “I remember.” It takes time. But perhaps he no longer had any. And this fresh reminder of the passage of time brought home to him the situation he was in.
He smiled at Lesya and knew that his escape must be soon.
That night, Jack ventured out into the forest alone, and Leshii came to kill him. The Lord of the Forest planted trees around him, trapping him in the darkness, sending branches and trunks tumbling toward him, and all the while he heard Lesya in the distance singing her sweet song. He called to her for help but she did not hear, and Leshii manifested as a darkness among shadows. He was as old as she’d said, and mad, and he was a jealous god.
Jack tried to reach beyond his wooden cage with the senses he had just learned, but he was only a man.
And when Leshii reached out with sharpened branches and plunged them into his feet, Jack opened his mouth to scream.
He gasped in a breath and stared at the timber ceiling of the living cabin. Trapped in a wooden cage! he thought, and Lesya moved in her sleep beside him. Thank God. Only a dream.
Breathing hard and fast, still feeling pain in his feet from where Leshii had pinned him down in his dream, Jack tried to calm himself. Only a dream. Only a…
Jack tried to sit up, but now he felt a weight on his legs, holding him down. Something shifted beneath the blanket, and terror curled itself into a tight ball in his belly. Breath caught in his throat, and he reached down with a trembling hand to tear the blanket away.
In the moonlight that streamed through the window he saw the thing that held him down, sliding and crawling across his lower body, rooted in the house’s living floorboards. The figure raised its head, and he saw the face—made of twigs and leaves, moss and mulch—and he knew who it was who held him now.
Flexing tendrils wrapped around Jack’s feet and ankles. He opened his mouth to scream, but Leshii raised one twig-like hand and held a knotted finger across his own lips, shushing him. Shhh…It reminded Jack so much of when Lesya had first rescued him from the Wendigo that the scream froze in his chest. Leshii’s eyes, dark holes framed by leaves, opened wide…and then turned to the side.
The god of the forest had not come there to kill him. But then why had he come?
Lesya woke and began shrieking at her spirit father, and then Jack’s own scream came at last, more startled by her fury and the way Leshii’s eyes suddenly darkened with dismay than from the heart-clenching terror he’d felt moments before.
THE LIVING GRAVEYARD
SHE TRIED TO CALM HIM. After Leshii had fled the cabin with a rustle of leaves and the cracking of split wood, Lesya had gone to the doors and windows and muttered something that might have been a spell. Then she came back to Jack and took him in her arms, hugging him to her, sitting on the bed so that he could lie with his head in her lap.