The branches snapped and fell in twists, making tiny, intricate maps
of new worlds beneath his feet. The air was thick with gorsehair, every step a sharp intake of heat and treebalm as if the forest was wrestling with his breath. He kept on, still aware of a faint, sidereal light pushing through the undergrowth. He kept his eyes open, wanting to see.
It was just legend or fable or silence that told him she would be there. In the village, all eyes would fall, heads would nod, hands would stop. No one wanted to talk about the smoke
and the birds, no one would talk about her.
His arms were scratches and pollen but he pushed on. His eyes filled with barkdust and dew but he pushed on. She might be real but no one believed she could be found.
The light has no place on her body, they said. Nothing
can settle there; no earth, no water, no swell, no man. Nothing has touched her in a hundred years. She is everything you'd ever want, a beautiful impossibility.
He didn't believe in dreams, shrugged them off like unkind words.
The light drew him on, made itself a trace
, drew coils and cups in the air, guiding him like tiny arrows.
Drew miles and miles, his shoes kicked to death and dissolving into the teaming
life beneath his feet. Underneath his shirt, soaked and seamed
, almost invisible, the thin maps of his journey, edged out in blood.
A sweep of his hand across his chest send out an arc of blood like an artery
. She's almost here, it's in the light. She's almost here.
He didn't believe in dreams, shrugged them off
like a bad weekend.
He pushed on, deeper and deeper, the plantlife lifting and separating
As the light grew brighter, the trees and plants flashed out, whited
, broke away from the world in front of his eyes. Where dense forest had been there was a hollow, tucked into the hillside like an ancient quarry, the plants and flowers floating silently intyo the air, making patterns in the sky, weaving in and out of the light that beamed from underneath
the hooks and crags of the earth.
Roots and tubers waved and then were gone, ascended.
The light made everything stray, it pulled the colours from the sky, it bleached the sun and cut up the words in his throat.
The air bistled and keeled
. The smoke and the birds, he said. The smoke and the birds.
And as the smoke descended he saw her.
The smoke made her and called down the birds from the branches. They settled and sung on her shoulders and in her hair, pulling gently at her as she smiled and looked at him.
Nothing can settle, he said. But the smoke and the-
A glimpse, a heart stop. She might have looked at him as the birds came down from the blown trees and started to unlace her, her dress unravelling like thread from a reel, layer after layer, until there was no more.
The birds took the threads and made cradles and nests in the trees
. She sat naked before him, crouched, unhurried, utterly alone.
She looked at him for a second of her time and told him everything he needed to know.
She stood and her skin was full of tiny hooks, almost unnoticed in the light and the shadow. She was glimmer and sun. Her body a bow. The hooks
covered her whole body, her naked arms stretched out and were full of thorns, caught in a moment between the smoke and the sun.
The villagers were right, even the light flew from her like a bird.
like he could see her longing. He moved forward, an inch.
If you touch me, you are
me, she said. These hooks are teeth, are thorns, are razors. If you touch me, you become me. I have to tear you to shreds and it will be beautiful and full of love.
He looked down at his blood on his arms, slowly rubbed the pollen
You touch me, you are me, she said and she held open her arms and smiled as he stepped forward and the smoke clung to his shoulders and curled around him and pulled and whirled
and dragged the moisture from his lips.
It was the light that tore him apart as her arms folded