Circle of Loss by Phillip Muniz

Everyone knew not to look at the trees for too long. Stories had been passed down in the village of Anuria for longer than anyone could remember about the Forest. How it held everything together and about the Veil that separated our world from the Other. Everyone had their own idea about what the “Other side” was. To some it was the realm of those who existed before humans and to others it was the promised land which would be the final reward of those of us who lived full and honest lives. I always thought it was a load of crap myself. 

When I was still a baby my father got the “esteemed” position of being a Watchman. They were in charge of monitoring the Forest and protecting Anuria from anything that cared to peek its nose out of the forest. His job meant that my family was moved out of the village, and we had to live in a cottage meant for members of the Watch. It’s supposed to be a great and noble position but the only thing you were guaranteed once you got assigned to the watch is that people would never trust you again and that you were going to die. My father disappeared the day I turned 16. Right when I became old enough to be passed the position. Why bring in another family when you already ostracized this one? I guess I’ve been lucky enough growing up. I always had food and when one lives on the edge of a forest known for driving people insane just making it to sixteen had felt like an accomplishment. The last morning I saw my father, he ruffled my dark brown hair and looked at me with his piercing green eyes and said “Happy birthday, son. As this is the day you become a man, traditionally I would take you on a boar hunt where I would leave you alone for three days and allow you to prove yourself to me by surviving but…” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “I was never one for tradition, so I suppose we’ll just celebrate here tonight when I get back.” That was 3 years ago and not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. 

With the loss of my father, I soon stopped caring about anything. I began to take journeys into the forest. I figured it best to know what I needed to protect the village from in order to best protect it. At first, I hesitated to go very far but as nothing bad happened I became more and more bold. I became the first human that I was aware of to go into the forest and return. I have to say the forest. Super weird place. There was a clearing where there is never any cloud cover. A place where the rocks float around instead of being bound to the earth. My father told me of places I could never go. An orchard whose fruit was unbearably tempting but unerringly lethal. A pond where water spirits would pull you across the Veil and you’d leave your body behind. The weirdest thing I found though was also the best. The autumn after I’d turned 19, I was wandering down a new path since I’d exhausted the trails I knew, and I came upon a blonde girl standing in the forest. I immediately froze as years of stories began playing through my head. My hand dropped to my knife but stopped as the girl turned around and I saw the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen in my life. She was shorter than me, maybe 5’2 with eyes the color of honey in the sunlight, blonde curls cascading gently down her shoulders. My eyes roved across her, noting the seemingly homemade blue dress and simple cloth belt around her waist before stopping at her feet and blurting the first thing that came to mind. “Lost your shoes, miss? You’ll catch your death out here,” 

She smiled, a hint of mischief coloring her features as she chuckled. “Had I known removing one’s shoes allowed death to be caught so easily I’d have lost them long ago. Anyways young man, may I have your name?”

My father’s voice echoed through my mind as something she said seemed to hold my attention. “Young man,” I replied slowly, taking a step backwards. “I don’t believe that is a good term for me. I’m certainly older than my face shows. As for my name, what might I get in return for such a boon?” 

A flash of some emotion I couldn’t name flitted across her face, almost too quickly to be certain it wasn’t imagined. Her easy smile pulled at my heart as she softly replied,” I thought you humans were supposed to be foolish and simple, it seems you are the exception my brave idiot. Come here and talk with me a while and I shall see if I can offer you something you might wish in exchange for your name.” Almost against my will I stepped forward until I could have reached out and touched her and I sat in the grass. With a graceful flourish she folded her legs beneath herself and settled into the grass across from me. The breeze picked up, blowing her scent of springtime and laughter into my lungs and bringing with it pictures of laughing and dancing as she peered through her lashes at me. Dropping my gaze for the first time I noticed she sat inside a circle of mushrooms on the forest floor, the edges of her dress a hair’s breadth from touching the edge of the ring. She laced her fingers and began to hum softly as I talked to her about the wonders of the forest and how it held no fear but endless adventure for me. She hummed gently all the while the sound of her voice somehow resonating the strings in my heart. As I talked, I hardly noticed the shadows lengthening taking on an almost sinister shape as they edged closer to her circle of mushrooms. After a time, she finally spoke and said, “Well now, I assure you you’ve nothing to fear from this forest as I’ve been here for longer than I can remember. I would like to speak with you again, but it seems the night creeps in, and I surely couldn’t be out past nightfall with someone who hasn’t even given me his name,” she pouted again blinking at me through her lashes. “Can I tempt you into giving it to me in exchange for a kiss?” My heart skipped a beat as my eyes flitted down to follow the curve of her mouth which curved up at the ends into a mocking smile. 

Standing up hurriedly I said,” That might be a fair price, but I fear you would take liberties with my name, and I couldn’t hope to compare my poor name to the perfection of your lips. I must hurry home now but might I return tomorrow for more conversation?” Her smile disappeared as I spoke, and the pout returned but before she had time to answer I had turned on my heel and fled back the way I’d come. Bursting through the front door of my house I could barely get enough air into my lungs. Never had I traveled so swiftly without stop, glancing back frequently, sure that I would see something behind me. As I threw the lock on my door I began to tear through the books on the shelves. The book I was looking for had been long since read and reread in my hours of boredom, the title read “Witches, Faeries, and Daemons”. Taking the heavy volume off the shelf I scrabbled through the pages until it fell on the drawing of a circle of mushrooms. Equal parts nervousness and excitement I read…

The following day I found myself in the same clearing as before and as my footsteps sounded, she turned around and beamed at me. “Hero! You’ve returned to save me from my boredom once again?” Nervously I walked up and sat in front of her circle once more. She once again sat opposite me and asked sweetly, “May I have your name today handsome?”

I drew a long breath and spoke. “I want to make a deal with you, siren. I know what you are and that you’re bound within that circle as long as you bear your name. Therefore, I propose a trade. You can have my name provided you don’t leave me without one and in exchange for doing this I want my father found and returned safely.”

The girl paused, then said gently, “In order to fulfill your wish you know you’d have to give me both yours and your father’s names, right?” I paled. The thought hadn’t occurred to me.

“Why would you tell me this?” I asked.

She thought for a moment then replied, “I could hear the song of your sorrow even from my cage the moment you realized he wasn’t coming back. You also don’t realize what you lose in order to make an arrangement with one of the Old Ones. I am under no obligation to do this, but I’ll give you one chance to reconsider. Wouldn’t it be simpler to just give me your name and forget what you’ve lost?”

I summoned the image of my father ruffling my hair and laughing and with it the resolve to make a decision. Image in mind I replied, “My name is Marius, Son of Andrew.”

Biography: Phillip has been writing for most of his life. He is 23 years old and well on his way to finishing his education. As the first person in his family to graduate from Aims he has been working hard to finish with school to get his teaching degree. He has been admitted to UNC and will start there in the fall after he graduates from Aims in May. Phillip has been using writing as an outlet for his creative expression ever since he was in 4th grade. He discovered fairly early that other more traditional art forms were not really his calling but something about building and shaping worlds through words and storytelling has always been something he has excelled at. He is currently working on his first play script and spends much of his free time split between acting and directing at the Windsor Community Playhouse and as a GM for a Pathfinder game. He hopes to have his first novel finished and published by the end of next year.