by Laura Kjosen
I tripped on the bottom step as I left the Red Oak Tavern. Of course I did not fall flat on my face. That would have been unthinkable. However, such a stumble was so uncharacteristic for those of my graceful race that some fellow revelers seated outside a nearby café had a good laugh at my expense.
“Mind your roots, Aspen. They appear a bit tangled tonight!” shouted a muscular Elf with long, deep brown hair. I recognized him as one of the wall guards and thought he was called Walnut, Hazelnut, some kind of nut. In response, I spread my arms wide and executed a perfect pirouette, letting my long white hair swirl elegantly about my head, to demonstrate that it was merely a small misstep, and I had not completely lost control of myself.
“Ah, friends,” I called, “even an Elf can overindulge a bit on Beltane. I have had some excellent blackberry wine tonight!”
I raised my nearly empty wooden goblet to the group at the café table, who raised theirs in response and then went back to their conversation.
“Yes, show’s over.” I looked away, feeling a bit embarrassed. The tendency to excess was as rare with me as the stumble, but I had been feeling so restless lately, not quite comfortable in my skin, also unusual. I had tried to sate the feeling with drink – a mistake. Ah, well. I turned north on the path toward home.
It was a lovely night. Stars filled the sky, twinkling through the canopy of the thousands of trees that formed our community. Our domain in Denver was separated from the humans’ by a massive stone wall, which ran north and south, splitting the city, with humans to the east of I -25 and Elves west into the Rockies. Hard won territory gained in the last war. We had won the forests and mountains of the West, but most Western cities were still in human possession or divided territories. Denver was the farthest city east we had made any gains, and in the end, a truce and a division of the city were necessary. The Elves settling here had expended much labor and magic freeing the land from its concrete prison.
My walk home took me close to the wall. I drained the last of the blackberry wine from my cup and began humming a pleasant tune, perfectly in key. I was enjoying the mingled scents of flowering dogwood and lilac when a much more noxious odor assailed me: the smell of a human body, laced with the aluminum they used as ‘deodorant.’ There was another scent as well, one so reprehensible I put my hand to my nose and mouth – petroleum.
Perhaps something was wrong with the magical barrier of air, a current that kept smells from the eastern, human side of the wall from wafting into our territory.
I was beyond the taverns now and had just passed the war museum. The smell was coming from the path to my right, one that ended at the 30-foot wall dividing our forested Elf world from the shopping centers, billboards, factories and high-rise apartments on the human side.
I was thinking about finding a guard or a Council Elder to complain to when I saw a flicker of movement in the dark.
I don’t know exactly what made me do it. Maybe it was because I had been so bored and restless lately, missing the sense of adventure and purpose I had when I had been a warrior fighting to reclaim the land from human destruction—and before when I had slipped surreptitiously in and out of their world. Maybe it was just the drink and the taunts from the guards, but despite the stench, I turned to the right down the path toward the wall.
She was trying to hide behind the trunk of a large dogwood in full flower that stood behind the museum. I nearly stumbled a second time, not from the effects of the wine, but from the shock of seeing a human woman on this side of the wall, unescorted, and well past the time the gates would have been locked and any authorized human visitors should have gone back through to their neon-lit world.
I opened my mouth to call for a guard, but I saw no guards strolling along the top of the wall. I remembered Walnut and his cohorts, and decided most of the guards were at the taverns tonight celebrating with everyone else.
I took a few more steps toward the woman huddled by the tree. She looked frightened, knew she wasn’t supposed to be here. She wasn’t so bad as humans go: pale, clear complexion, full lips, straight brown hair falling just beyond her shoulders, light eyes, maybe grey or blue. She was of middling height, and her body was thin, almost boyish actually, with a brown wrap dress clinging to slim hips and her feet slipped into leather sandals. I could smell the polyester in the dress and crinkled my nose – the
material was the source of the petroleum smell, that, and a plastic box resting by the woman’s feet.
“Please,” she pleaded, as I approached. “Don’t call the guards. I was here on an approved visit with a school group today. I was locked in by accident. I’m an art teacher. I stayed behind to paint.” She gestured toward the flowering dogwood. “I lost track of time.”
I glanced at the plastic art box and small easel standing nearby.
“The wall guards are usually pretty exuberant when announcing the closing of the gate,” I noted, careful to keep my tone courteous.
“I didn’t hear them.” She was looking straight at me, not a flinch or a blink.
Come to think of it, I had not heard the guards calling for the closing of the gate earlier that evening either, not that I paid much attention anymore.
I studied the woman. She had wrapped her arms protectively around herself and was shivering. Yet another unusual feeling stirred in my gut, sympathy. The gate was locked at eight each night, and it was after midnight now. She had been hiding for several hours fearing the guards would find her – and that fear was not unfounded.
Ever since the end of the war and the construction of the wall, we had had to address many attempts by humans to raid, vandalize or otherwise harass our community. These incursions sometimes were regular enough that the guards tended to shoot intruders on sight. The guards were excellent archers, and their arrows usually only wounded the trespassers enough so they easily could be arrested, but there was the occasional fatality, which always led to increased political tensions.
“We are celebrating Beltane tonight,” I told her. “The guards may be a bit…distracted, but there are many of us still out and about even at this late hour. I could smell you from the path. What will you do?”
“Can you open the gate for me?” she asked hopefully.
“No, only the guards and Council Elders can do that.”
She lowered her eyes to stare at her sandaled feet.
“I should take you to the Council. It’s a holiday. They may not want the hassle of prosecuting you—may just hold you overnight and release you when the gates open in the morning.” I tried to sound soothing, persuasive, but the woman violently shook her head and started to pace around the tree, hugging herself.
“I’ll walk along the wall. Maybe I can find a point to sneak back through. No one needs to know.” She turned and looked at me, probably weighing whether I would tell or not.
“The wall has detection enchantments on it as well as the locked gates, and I don’t think all the guards are drinking tonight.”
She stopped pacing, and her eyes widened at the mention of magic. Then she leaned against the dogwood, burying her face in her arms. I could hear her breath coming faster. She was crying.
I looked again at the paint box on the ground. I moved next to her and took in the work on the easel. Even in the dark and with the painting unfinished, I could make out the details that were its focus, not the beautiful dogwood in full glorious bloom in the foreground, but rather the focal point was one of the window spaces, allowing a view of the interior of the museum, where the docent Hellebore was standing performing some task.
“Did Hellebore know…?” I raised my brows at the woman.
She raised her head and stepped back from the tree. “She said I could sketch her while she cleaned up as long as I left with the others. I became distracted, and she probably did, too. I just kept painting after she left. She didn’t know I was still here.”
“Hmm. An interesting subject. Hellebore is beautiful, but to paint her doing some mundane task …”
She was giving me a supercilious look.
“I am a painter, too,” I told her. Her face morphed into incredulity. “Yes, really. Surely after your visit here today you know all Elves are artists in some way?”
She gave a curt nod, her lips pressed together. Politeness.
I sighed. I really should take her to the Council, but that would mean a lot of tedium, spoiling an otherwise pleasant evening. I could leave her for the guards to find, but I glanced again at her tear-streaked face and at the painting on the easel. I had been itching for a bit a trouble, and here it was.
In the next breath I was saying, “Come home with me for tonight. It’s against our laws, and I will be taking a risk, but I can’t let a fellow artist be brutalized by the likes of Walnut.”
“Who?” she sniffled.
“Never mind. If I’m helping you, I should know your name.”
She stepped back a bit, weighing whether she could trust me or not.
“Am I being kidnapped?”
“ Oh. Well, it’s Kimberly.”
“Yes, well, Kimberly, I’m Aspen.”
She smiled and put a hand to her mouth suppressing a giggle.
“You find my name amusing?”
“No. I mean, I know that Elves are named for things in nature, but, well, you are tall and thin and with your white hair and pale complexion, yours just seems particularly appropriate.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “Yes, it’s appropriate. We will have to take a less direct path to my home, but I think we should be able to avoid detection. Let’s get going.”
“Okay, just let me…” she stooped to pick up her easel.
“I’m sorry, but the paints will have to stay. I won’t have the smell in my house, and the odor will attract attention. A wood box works just as well you know.”
“But they’ll be expensive to replace if someone finds them and throws them out – and they will know a human was here.”
She had a point.
“If we hide your paints and easel in those thick barberry bushes next to the wall, the guards may just think the smell is coming from the other side. It happens, not often, but sometimes the magic wanes, and human smells drift through.”
I didn’t think the sensitive noses of the guards would be fooled, but I got her to hide the paints in the shrubs, and then hustled her along a back path towards my house, choosing a route with the thickest tree trunks and hedges for cover in case any of my neighbors were also making their way home.
She gasped when I stopped at the intertwining stands of aspen that formed my house.
“Do you all live in the trees that are your namesakes?”
“If we can,” I answered, gesturing for her to enter through curtains of ivy. “There are some of my race who are named for other living things and some whose names are very old and their namesakes no longer exist in nature—sometimes due to the inevitable course of life and sometimes not.”
She met my gaze, looking troubled at the hardness in my voice. I couldn’t help it. Even with the help of all the old magic, we were still trying to reverse the damage to recovered lands.
She got the message. “I know, I know, because humans destroyed them.”
“Humans do tend to take, to use, without repairing or giving back,” I said more softly. “Your race has the desire to develop, create. But they revel in the artificial instead
of glorifying this….” I swept my hand above my head, indicating the towering trees.
The woman looked up, her eyes following the natural arc of the milky branches, which were dotted with brown buds, a bit of green leaf just emerging from some of them.
Candles were set in the crotches of several branches, both along the walls and in the roof of the tree house.
“How does it not catch fire?” she wondered aloud.
“The elements are not enemies. We understand their properties,” I explained. Then I gently took her arm and steered her through the tree trunks into small clearings or “rooms.” I led her to the largest of these.
The woman walked tentatively across the floor; no doubt the pine needles and moss were springier under her feet than the concrete she was used to. I directed her around the low pine table at the center of the room and over to a series of wooden benches, pine again, placed in a circle around a small fire pit. The benches were covered with emerald green silk cushions. She dropped onto a cushion and put a hand to her forehead, kneading it.
“Are you ill?”
“Very tired. Just a headache.”
“Wait here. Relax.”
I went into an adjacent room, a kitchen, as humans would call it. As I made tea, I felt her eyes on my back, watching me through the gaps in the trunks.
She was squinting at the passageway when I came back. She looked exhausted and pale, and again I felt a rather unfamiliar surge of sympathy for her.
“Is that your kitchen? The stone oven…it’s domed, kind of like those I think some Native American tribes used.”
I merely nodded and gave her the steaming drink in a carved stone mug.
She sniffed it, hesitating. She still suspected me.
“It’s chamomile.” I know I sounded irritated, but she took a sip, the furrows in her brow relaxing as she recognized the flavor.
I watched her drink her tea and look about the room, her eyes stopping on sculptures in the nooks of some of the branches, and the paintings that hung from tree trunks and were suspended by ropes from the canopy.
“You really are an artist. I wondered if you were making that up to get me to trust you.”
I stifled a yawn. All the wine was beginning to take its toll. “In the morning I will let you study them more closely. You are an art teacher, you said, but perhaps you can learn something.”
She frowned, glared at me, murmured “arrogant” under her breath.
I had pricked her pride, and I had the feeling she would have stalked out but for fear of being caught by the guards. She stood and walked over to study some of the paintings.
“Your style seems strangely familiar, but I can’t quite place it. This one, the wildflowers on the riverbank. I don’t know if I have ever seen plants with such a luminescent quality.”
I nodded in assent.
“How did you learn this? The colors seem to emanate from the subjects themselves, and your brush strokes are so fine I can hardly make them out. The light
changes subtly on this petal leaf as if real sunlight was shifting across the plant even though it’s night. Perhaps a trick of the candles…”
Humans were so obtuse! She was an art teacher, yet did not recognize the technique when the artists and subjects were different from those works she most likely studied. “You have heard of Leonardo da Vinci, of course—and how he studied light and shadow in the natural world, the variations in the interplay of light and shade on objects. He even wrote a treatise…”
“Yes, I know,” she interrupted me rather emphatically, “The Treatise on Shadow and Light. The difference between light and luster. All that golden light illuminating his religious paintings. Hardly subjects a pagan Elf would be interested in I would think,” she said, smirking.
I smiled at her. I liked that she was arguing, and even though my body was begging for sleep, I was inspired to antagonize her a bit more.
“It wasn’t Leonardo’s subject matter that fascinated my ancestors, but his techniques. Yes, I will concede we learned something from an exceptional human, and those techniques, along with others of our own have been passed down through generations.”
Her mouth hung open. She snapped it shut, and threw me the most incredulous look.
“You are telling me that Leonardo da Vinci consorted with Elves?”
“Why not? I dare say he got something out of the bargain. He did give humans saintly bodies and faces.” I purposely pulled my tunic over my head, leaving my torso bare with just cotton pants below. “I believe one of my ancestors even consented to
model for him. Saint John in The Last Supper is rather beautiful for a human man.”
A whoosh of air escaped her lips, and she turned her back on me, shaking her head, muttering, “Impossible…ridiculous.”
“You may believe what you like,” I said, keeping my tone nonchalant.
She turned and looked as if she were going to continue the argument, but her eye strayed to one of the paintings hanging from above, her brow furrowed in confusion.
I yawned rather obviously. “I would be happy to show you more in the morning.”
“Fine. Please don’t stay up on my account. I’ll just crash here on these nice cushions when I’ve finished my tea.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You will take my bed. I do ask, however, that you bathe and wear a tunic instead of your own clothes to bed. The smell of the polyester could be difficult to get out of the sheets, and the odor is unpleasant to us.”
The woman pressed her mouth into a thin line. I could feel the force of her indignation. Oh well, my house, and I was helping her. She could allow me a few demands. I walked over to one of the shelves by my bed and removed a soft white cotton tunic.
She ran her hand over the cloth as she took it.
“Thank you. Um…”
“You may change in the room next to this. There is soap and a pitcher of water to wash.”
I tried to keep my eyes averted, but I couldn’t help occasionally stealing a peek through the branches, as she stood at the washstand naked. I had never found human women particularly attractive, but the momentary glimpses of a shoulder, a hip were pleasantly tantalizing.
She returned wearing the tunic and smelling of my lavender soap.
“The soap was nice, but a stone basin and pitcher? How do you live without plumbing?
“Actually…” I started to answer, but then saw her face flush.
“Um, I hate to ask anything else of you, but where do you, um, go?”
“You know, take care of bodily needs.”
I felt my cheeks burn and involuntarily laughed a bit.
“I’m sorry. I should have told you. We feed the tree.”
I crossed to an opening in the far back corner of the room and pointed down. “Step down these roots. See they are like stairs, and at the bottom is the chamber you need. Just pour a bit of the sand and borax mixture in the hole when you are done, please. Helps with the odor.”
I watched her climb down, hoping she was a human who had done some camping.
While she was below, I gingerly retrieved the woman’s dress from where she had dropped it by the wash basin. I put it in the corner of the kitchen next to my most pungent herbs. I was still uneasy that if anyone passing by paid close enough attention,
they would probably smell it, but I was counting on most of my neighbors being less attentive than usual tonight because of their celebrating. I extinguished the candles and was banking the fire in the main room when the woman emerged at the top of the steps.
I guessed she’d figured out Elven plumbing. She looked away quickly when I noticed her eyes gliding over my shirtless chest.
“Are you sure you want me to take the bed?”
“Yes, I’m sure.” And I watched as she slid beneath the duvet on the low bamboo bed.
“But where are you going to sleep?”
“Up there.” I pointed to a broad branch that formed a beam in the “ceiling” of the room. I climbed branches that acted as rungs on a ladder, bringing a blanket that I spread out on the wide branch before lying down with my back to the room.
“Are you comfortable there?” she called from below.
“Quite. I enjoy lying here at times.”
“Why are you helping me really? It’s not just because we both paint.”
“Kindness surprises you? You did nothing wrong so why should you endure questioning? I am not without a heart.”
I could feel her eyes on my back. “You know,” she said quietly, “When I was a teenager, I was into fantasy art. I thought Elves were mystical creatures then, before the war. The paintings did not do you justice. Good thing I wised up and studied Realism.”
I shifted and wrapped the blanket around my body. There had been something in her tone just now. I knew she was grateful for the shelter, but my other behavior hadn’t exactly been endearing. Humans were strange. Could she think me arrogant, yet be attracted at the same time? Maybe she was simply fascinated, many humans were.
Her voice—sounding tired and unsure—broke the silence. “Um, well, if you get uncomfortable up there, you can share the bed. I won’t mind.”
I flinched. Was that an invitation? Well, yes it was. For a moment I was tempted. I had never made love to a human, but I had heard the tales in the taverns of those who had. It was a lark, fun, slightly disgusting in a decadent sort of way, according to the storytellers.
No, I was tired, and fuzzy-headed from the wine. I’d had my little thrill and joke against the guards by bringing her home, but that was far enough. I closed my eyes and an image flooded my head—an image of a forest on fire, the acrid smell of fuel, the roar of jet engines as fighter pilots strafed my aerie as we fought our way into a mountain town. The woman artist probably had no role in those battles, and I was sure she was not a spy, but my feelings for humans were perfunctory at best. So why had I helped her? Maybe I was starting to soften. It had been ten years after all. Still, what I had done tonight was stupid, another discomforting slip in the calm world I had created for myself after the war – and now I was going to have to figure out how to get her home unnoticed when the gates opened in the morning.
“Goodnight, Kimberly,” I said, probably rather irritably.
No matter. There was no response. I could hear her steady breathing. She was already asleep.
She was awake by the time I had finished the cranberry-almond muffins. When I walked in from the kitchen she was sitting up staring at a painting of some pigeons I had done in a mountain ski town my aerie had taken during the war. I liked the picture; they were rather fat pigeons, with fuchsia feathers ringing their necks and three bright orange toes. Their body feathers were a mix of charcoal, a lighter gray, and flecked with white, like a dusting of snowflakes.
My voice sounded too loud as I walked into the room to set the muffins on the table. “Mountain pigeons. I painted them when I was at one of those towns where humans used to ski. Vail, I think it was called. The pigeons were still there, even though the humans with all their garbage had been routed out by, well, by us.”
She had instinctively pulled the duvet up to her neck at the sound of my voice.
“Did you sleep well?” I asked.
“Yes, thank you. It’s a bit too quiet though, kind of unnerving. I’m used to waking up to the sound of car engines starting as people go to work, maybe the occasional wail of a police car or fire engine.”
I gestured at the muffins and tea on the table.
“You don’t have to feed me,” she said.
She really was exasperating. “I know I don’t have to, but you are a guest…not a prisoner.”
“Sorry, my manners,” she mumbled.
She swung her legs over the side of the futon and walked over to the low table. She sat cross-legged on the bamboo mat as I did. I poured her some tea as she dutifully took a couple bites of muffin. She studied the tea in her cup and sniffed, pulling back a bit and blinking at the scent.
“Jasmine,” I said, reading her expression.
“Oh. It’s nice,” she smiled.
“I had intended to find a way to get you through the gate when it opens this morning.” I took a sip of tea and studied her over the rim of my cup, trying to gauge her mood. “However, I thought about it further last night, and I decided it would be best to wait until this evening. You would be too obvious otherwise—going out one way when the visitors for today are coming in the other.”
“But…” she started to object.
“You never got to finish your painting," I interrupted. “We can paint together today.”
She looked down at the table and played with the muffin, turning it to crumbs. “Don’t you have other work?”
“My work is to paint, and that’s what I am going to do.”
“I was hoping to go home this morning,” she said, “but, yes, I would enjoy painting with you today.”
She looked away, across the room, whether from shyness or embarrassment I couldn’t tell. “But my paints…they are hidden by the wall.”
“We will use mine today.”
She studied the pictures hanging around her.
“No offense, but don’t know if I can use this paint, the techniques – I’m not familiar—I don’t know if I can get the effect I want.”
“Then you will learn something new,” I answered a bit brusquely and began clearing away breakfast.
As I set up two easels with paints and brushes, I watched the woman’s pinched, skeptical expression.
She felt the canvas. “What is--?”
“But linen doesn’t hold paint as well…it’s not as durable as…”
“We have a preservative,” I interrupted, “but I don’t always use it. Does it matter if fifty years from now the painting falls apart?”
“Don’t you want your work to last?”
“Ha! A very human idea. I know about all those masterpieces kept in climate-controlled rooms in your museums. Carefully preserved as if such beauty will never be created again. Such pessimism. I have seen some of them. Are they really that extraordinary? How do you know that you won’t create an equally fantastic painting today?”
She coughed and laughed in a quiet, self-deprecating way
“Me? Paint like Van Gough or Hopper? I don’t think so. By the way, what do you mean you have seen the masterpieces? You have been in our museums?”
“Several times. Before the war I had to disguise myself as a human. What? Don’t look so shocked, especially after our conversation last night. We were always among you. You just didn’t notice until we started fighting for the land.”
“No, I said the land, not ours, not yours.”
“Okay, I’m not going to rehash arguments from the war. Where are we going to paint today?”
“I thought we could paint here. We can’t take the risk of you wandering around outside.”
She moved behind the easel, ran her fingers over the silky brushes, sniffed the paint. “The paint is plant-based?”
“Yes, mixed with egg.”
“I haven’t worked with that sort of paint for a long time…”
“Try it. We’ll each paint this room, and compare later this afternoon, agreed?”
“A painting smack-down, I love it.”
She began making a charcoal sketch of the room. “You know you aren’t really correct about pessimism as a reason for our preservation of art. We keep the paintings, the sculptures, all art forms to remember our cultures during different points in our history, and to study the techniques of our great artists, not because we are pessimists.”
“My apologies, then.”
“Besides, when I was in the war museum yesterday, I noticed that Elves keep certain artifacts too.” Her face was partly hidden behind the easel so I couldn’t read her expression, but I had the feeling she was baiting me.
“Mere examples of our culture. They can be replaced. Everything in nature is destroyed and renewed. We view our creations the same way. However, some of
nature’s materials are more durable than others. We use those for certain things we need to keep so that others can learn.”
“Is that why the truce agreement I saw in the museum yesterday was carved into stone tablets like the Ten Commandments?”
“Yes. The tablets are part of the important story of the last war, so they are worth keeping. Stories are important to the way Elves remember and learn. Humans were that
way once too, but at some point you forgot your stories and became obsessed with—objects, things.”
“Stories? You mean like fairy tales?”
I stepped away from my easel so she could see me.
“Did any of you still believe there were Elves before we emerged from the forests and caves to challenge you?”
“I…well, some people maybe did. I didn’t. Before the war, I thought you were fantasies. That’s what I was thinking all day yesterday, that this place doesn’t seem real. When you appeared behind the museum last night, I was still wondering if everything--
the war, the wall, this world, was all part of some massive hallucination perpetuated by an evil government.” She peered around her easel and smiled to show she was joking.
“The guards’ arrows would not have been hallucinations, trust me.”
She wrapped her arms around herself protectively and pretended to study the angles of the room.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound threatening.”
Contrite, I picked up my brush again. “Let’s paint this hallucination and tonight when you are safe at home you can study it and decide whether or not it is real.”
Kimberly moved her easel to the room’s entrance. I remained at the center, the back of my easel facing the back of hers. She made a few sketches. I watched her frown over the brushes and move the angle of her easel around.
She dumped her first attempt off the easel in frustration.
I said nothing, only calmly handed her another canvas without even giving the discarded effort a cursory glance.
We painted silently, the only sound the occasional scratch of a brush on the linen. We had been at it for a few hours when her stomach rumbled loudly. I set down my brushes and walked past her without looking at her easel. She had been working hard, I saw that, and I would not look until she wanted me to.
“Food, I think.”
I brought bread, smoked wild turkey, carrots and tea.
“I thought Elves were vegetarians.” Kimberly looked at me, embarrassed but curious.
“Why do you think that?”
“I don’t know. Stories I guess. I read it somewhere.”
“Elves live on what is available to them—so some, presumably, are vegetarians. Those of us here live like the native humans who used to populate this area. We forage, hunt, grow gardens. Those who wish it, learn to hunt with a bow at an early age. A young hunter is not allowed to hunt alone until he is highly skilled and can make a quick, precise kill so the animal does not suffer. We only take what our communities will use. We do not raise and kill animals for profit.”
“Then how do you get things you don’t know how to grow or kill or that you can’t make yourself?”
“If something is not available, we do without it. Otherwise we barter. The turkey hunter in this case wanted a painting and some of the bread like I made you this morning. So we traded.”
“And everyone’s okay with that?”
“Elves are not greedy,” I stated flatly and then ate in silence, studying her, making her squirm under my gaze.
When her stomach was sated, she escaped back behind her easel. I stood back from my work occasionally to watch her, her brows knit together in concentration. I wondered fleetingly if she had a mate.
When the sunlight filtering into the tree house had turned amber with late afternoon, I told her we had to stop, get ready to go to the gate, hopefully find a tourist group that was leaving where she could blend in.
“I’m not done.”
“You can probably finish from memory.”
“I don’t know. That’s not the way I paint.”
I walked over. “May I?”
She nodded assent, but looked at her feet, not at my face.
I looked at the picture on the easel. There was the room in great detail– the rumpled bed, the shifting light, gashes and knobs on the tree trunks, a tiny puddle of spilled tea on the table. There was the back of my easel, but not my head above it.
“Where am I?”
“I…I couldn’t get the color of your hair right.”
“Hmm. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘right.’”
“The light and shadow, the right white, I don’t know. I just can’t reproduce it as it is in nature.”
I felt the corners of my mouth pull into a smile. “Last night you mentioned Realism. Is that the style in which you prefer to paint?
“Yes. The American Realists, Hopper, Bellows, Wyeth, if you are familiar with them…”
“I’ve seen the work.” I swallowed, suppressing any derogatory comments. I had been arrogant enough.
“I appreciate what they were trying to do. Show their world as they saw it without embellishment. Although some of their subject matter, human cities, squalid rooms, buildings, factories, not really to an Elf’s taste. But you understand that the Realists’ work was rather a phenomenological reality. Can your work not be that reality too? What is your perception, experience of this room? What is your experience of my hair?"
“My experience of your hair?” she said incredulously. She thought I was laughing at her again.
I picked up her hand and brought it to the side of my head, guiding it down the long, straight pale strands. I let myself enjoy the sensation as she stroked my hair, rubbed strands between her fingers, held it in her palm, studied its shading. When the temptation became too strong to do the same to hers, I gently moved her hand away.
“We have to go.”
I put a blotter sheet on the painting and stored it between two thin pieces of wood, tying the package with rope. “It might smudge a bit, but nothing you can’t fix.” While I was binding up her painting, she moved to look at mine still resting on the easel in the center of the room.
“What did you paint? It seems just a swirl of colors -- whites, browns, yellows, a bit of blue around where my eyes would be peeking out from behind the easel. Oh, wait. Now I see the white and black tree trunks of the aspens, the pine outline of my easel. But when I shift my angle, the light changes and…”
She stamped her foot in frustration. “How do you do this? Am I looking at what you saw today or other images you remember from looking at the room over time?”
“What do you think?” I had retrieved her clothes went to her side, holding her dress and sandals.
“I…I don’t know. It’s beautiful. But the images – they are just too…too ephemeral.”
“Do you still think I and my house are hallucinations—that if you close your eyes and open them that I will disappear or shift into something else?” I smiled, amused.
She put her hand on my chest, over my heart. “No,” she whispered, “you are real.”
Her touch was not repulsive to me, to the contrary, but I fought the urge to draw her in closer. Again, I felt just a bit out of control with this woman. “You need to put these on.” I held out her clothes.
While she changed, I rummaged in a chest and found a brown hooded cloak and handed it to her to put on. It fit nearly perfectly.
“This can’t be yours; it’s too small.”
“An Elf woman left it here when she was staying with me.”
“You have a…I don’t know what Elves call it. We say girlfriend.”
“Not right now.”
“Have you ever been married?” she asked quietly.
Why was she asking these questions?
“Elves do not marry the same way humans do. It’s not, how do you say, a binding contract. We are together when we want to be, and when one or both want to leave, well, we do. In that sense, I have been ‘married’ a few times.”
Thankfully, she did not pursue the subject. We left the tree house and retraced the same circuitous route we had taken the previous evening, but I was nervous. She was a bit clumsy, tripping over roots as we hurried along, obviously not someone of my race.
When we had the museum in sight, I stopped her and whispered in her ear, “Try to walk as if you are walking on air, not like an awkward human. If someone questions us, keep your face in the hood, and I’ll tell them you are a friend visiting from the mountains and that you injured your foot on the journey here.”
She looked at me as if she wanted to slap me. Last night I would have been entertained by putting her in her place; now I felt sorry.
“I…I just mean humans have a different gait. I want you to get home safely.”
She seemed to accept that as an apology, if grudgingly so.
Inside the museum, we saw a group of humans gathered around a docent who was explaining some artifact. I pulled her into a corridor to remove the cloak.
“My paints and easel,” she looked at me pleadingly.
I went out back, checked for guards, and rummaged in the barberry bushes. Holding my breath, I quickly carried the paint box and easel back into the museum.
I slipped the packaged painting into the folds of the easel and handed it to her. She smiled and whispered, “Thank you.”
She looked up, holding my eyes with her gaze, a not unfriendly look on her face. For a moment I thought I saw longing there, but perhaps the longing was more on my part than hers. I had been arrogant—and I regretted that.
I put a hand gently on her back. “Go,” I whispered. “They are near the end of the tour.”
She took a few steps down the corridor, and then turned back. Kimberly really was a pleasant human. I remembered her fingers in my hair and smiled. I put my fingertips to my lips sending the magical whisper of a kiss across the space between us.
When she felt it, she put her fingers to her lips and smiled, blushing. Then she turned to join the back of the departing tour group.
I went out the back door of the museum. If I climbed to the wall, I could see the gate between the human and Elf worlds. I scampered up the dogwood –the one Kimberly had been hiding behind the night before.
I was about halfway up when I heard the back door of the museum open. I immediately assumed a lounging position on a branch and pretended to be studying the tree’s foliage.
The docent, an Elf woman with very long, straight blue-black hair, propped open the door. She was waving a smoking piece of sandalwood . I moved slightly as a knot in the branch pressed into my back. She looked up.
“Good afternoon, Hellebore,” I called down. “Just enjoying the beauty of this tree.”
“Oh it’s you, Aspen. Are you going to paint the tree?”
“I’m sure it will be lovely.” She smiled at me, and for a moment I forgot why I was in the tree.
“Just trying to get rid of the human smells,” said Hellebore. “There was a woman who brought in a bright red plastic handbag. We usually ask them to leave that stuff at the gates, but the guards there have been getting lax lately. This morning, I could swear I
smelled plastic out here in the yard. Ah well, I suppose it’s good to keep up the tours – in the interest of peace.”
“Hmm,” I shook my head in empathy. “Well, I think I’ll just climb about here a bit more. Get another perspective.”
“Okay, I’ll leave you to it. When you are down, come see me if you want,” she smiled again.
When she had gone back inside, I tightrope-walked along a branch that nearly reached the wall and leapt to the top. I saw no guards at this point, but it was not illegal for me to sit here. I could see a guardhouse and the top of the gate several yards away.
Soon I saw the gate swing open and could just make out the line of humans passing through. Yes, there she was, uncomfortably lugging the packed easel and paint box. I watched until the gate was closed. For a moment I was sad; I probably wouldn’t see her again. I held that thought for few minutes, but then began climbing back down the dogwood, wondering if Hellebore would like to have a glass of wine with me.
In the fall when the leaves on the aspens were pale gold, I climbed into the canopy of my tree house. I don’t know why; I just felt like climbing. From near the top I could see the wall and the taller buildings on the human side. I saw that men had changed the image on a large billboard that jutted up just above the wall. But instead of
the usual advertisements for car dealerships or drug treatment centers, there were two large images that appeared to be paintings.
I descended so fast I nearly fell. I ran to the wall in minutes. I climbed a tree near the wall and sprang to the top to study the billboard. Yes, the painting style on the left side of the billboard was familiar. It was of a room in a human house, a kitchen with grungy paint and a cold stainless sink. A box of cereal sat on a yellowing laminate countertop. A shirtless man with a shaved head and a dragon tattoo covering his back was bent over the sink, a burning cigarette clutched between two of his fingers.
I felt a pang in my gut. Who was the model? Was this her house? It didn’t look very pleasant. My eyes drifted to the second image on the right. The style of this painting was different. I smiled as the word “ephemeral” popped into my head. Golden light emanated from the picture. I recognized the room in my house where I cooked. There was the clay oven, and at a table was a lithe figure making tea, his back to the painter, his long white hair falling over bare skin to his waist.
“Think she got the hair right,” I muttered, turning my head a bit to study the intricate mix of grays, whites, even a very pale shade of yellow. I read the type across the bottom of the billboard. It was an advertisement for a gallery show titled “Our Divided City” by Denver artist Kimberly Watson.
I was startled out of this reverie by a brusque voice.
“Isn’t that your house, Aspen?”
I spun to my left. Two guards were walking toward me. One, to my relief, was my sometime drinking buddy, Poplar, but unfortunately right beside him was the scowling Walnut – that could be trouble.
I didn’t answer the question, merely smiled, and continued to examine the billboard. As the guards came up beside me, I crinkled my nose. “You two smell awful.”
“Not our fault,” Walnut growled. “That idiot Boxwood forgot to check the magical barrier above a section of wall last night. Some of the human rats managed to launch several cans of red oil paint over the wall before Boxwood realized what was happening. They broke open and splattered all over Hemlock’s tree house. You know he’s on the Council, so there was a big uproar, protests to the humans’ government and all that, and we spending half our shift cleaning it up.”
I suppressed a laugh.
“So, Aspen,” Poplar wasn’t going to let it go, “isn’t that your house?” He pointed a long, thin finger toward the billboard.
I studied my feet.
After a few moments of silence, I heard raucous laughing and dared to raise my head when Walnut’s giant paw grasped my shoulder.
“You snuck her in, didn’t you?” he asked conspiratorially.
“Just tell me it wasn’t on my shift,” said Poplar.
“Or mine.” Walnut put a bit more pressure on my shoulder.
I smiled at Poplar and shook my head no.
“It was when that stupid Boxwood was on wasn’t it?” bellowed Walnut.
“The Council is going to know it’s you and your house, Aspen,” said Poplar. But then he smiled. “I think you’ll be okay though. Legitimate reason for a human to be here, even if not through official channels– sharing painting techniques—peaceful cooperation and all that.”
Walnut began laughing again and muttered, “peaceful cooperation,” and clapped me on the back hard, but I held my ground, refusing to stumble in front of Walnut again. Instead, I jumped gracefully to a nearby tree and climbed down. I waved to Poplar, and left the two guards singing a bawdy song.
When I got home, I sprawled on the futon and studied the painting hung on the tree trunk opposite the bed. I had replaced the pigeons with another subject.
I hadn’t gone for a drink with Hellebore that day last spring when I had seen Kimberly safely through the wall. Instead, I had come home and looked at the painting I had done with her that afternoon. I had worked several hours into the night, and now in the middle of the painting was a very realistic picture of a human woman peering out from behind an easel. She had straight brown hair and blue eyes with faint “crow’s feet” radiating from their corners. I got up from the bed and walked up to face the painting. I reached out my fingers to touch the mouth of the female figure.
“Don’t know if I got that quite right.”
I thought I might need to see her mouth again, touch it, for real this time, not magically, to get the experience of it.
I lay back on the bed and began forming my response to the Council, who were sure to ask. If I played this right, perhaps I could get them to give me a pass to see the gallery show – in the spirit of professional cooperation.
I studied the painting some more. I would never admit it to her, but I had carefully applied preservative to this painting, and in a moment of rare artistic vanity, had carved a particularly pretty wooden frame for it. This one, I decided, I would never trade.
When she is not teaching literature to community college students, Laura Kjosen is an avid writer and reader of fantasy fiction. She recently has published short stories in Dante's Heart, an online journal of myth, fairy tale and folklore, and in the fantasy fiction magazine Sounds of the Night. She lives in Colorado with her husband and two sons.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
I get story ideas from reading in a lot of different genres, particularly history, folklore, mythology and politics. For instance, the idea for "Realism" came after I had been reading some art books on Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper. I get settings from places I have lived or visited, and some come purely from imagination. Sometimes ideas come from listening and observing people in mundane settings (all writers are eavesdroppers and spies). I might see a couple arguing in the local coffee shop and later write a story featuring a couple breaking up--adding fantasy elements of course. Instead of the breakup of a human relationship, in a story it becomes a breakup between two beautiful creatures with iridescent wings.