The young woman’s olive-colored skin was tinged with a deep, dark green. She was nearly naked, and wore no dress or robe; covered only by clusters of leaves in those places forbidden to men’s eyes. She sat on a shorn tree-stump in the midst of the forest clearing, braiding her hair. As she sat, her eyes travelled around the clearing, watching the other spirits that had gathered there to hold court.
Bands of fairies flew about and sported in the canopies of the surrounding trees; Goblins, as squat and grotesque as the stone figures they sat on, consumed fruit ravenously; a satyr, long-horned and lecherous, sidled to a recumbent female faun, who turned away sinuously from his advances. In the clearing’s very center, on a large flat stone carved with intricate runic lettering, sat a throne molded from the detritus of the forest. On the throne was a creature of great stature whose ears came to sharp points. He was draped in robes of black and indigo, and on his head rested an ornate, silver circlet. He sat, watching the boarders of the clearing with a face set like iron, unmoved by joy or pity.
A rustling sound caused the young woman to look up. Something had disturbed the large veil of moss which separated the clearing from the rest of the forest. She looked around—all of the creatures of the forest had frozen.
The veil of moss opened, and a man, bald on the very top of a head circled by hair, and dressed in the russet-brown robes of his order, stepped into the clearing. He wore a simple pair of sandals. A leather satchel was slung across his shoulder, and a wooden cross hung around his neck.
A monk from the neighboring monastery, the woman thought. These Christians become bolder by the day. It’s a wonder that the Erlking has not rid us of them. But they will go as all the others have gone before them. Druid and Roman priestcraft have both come and gone, and this set will be no different. The young woman sat unmoving, taking in silent breaths. She watched as the monk looked around the clearing, seeing nothing. Good, she thought, The Erlking’s magic still holds…
The monk took the cross which hung on his neck—a crucifix carved from a Jerusalem Cypress. He held it in both hands, and turned his eyes up to heaven. The young woman watched as he intoned, “Christ Jesus, Son of God Almighty, open thou my eyes…”
When he looked down again, he took a step back, his eyes widened, and he let out a sharp gasp of breath. The young woman stiffened, and a momentary shock of fear rushed through her. We are seen, she thought. How is it possible? The Erlking must have allowed it…must have chosen to reveal himself for some reason…but why? He cannot allow this insult to continue. She looked around. All of the creatures in the clearing knew what had happened. The faun leapt up and cantered behind a tree to hide herself. The fairies flitted into flower-bulbs. The Satyr walked up and stood next to the Erlking’s throne. The goblins dropped their fruit and stared stupidly at the monk.
“I am told,” said the Erlking to the new-comer, “that even among your limited kind great authority is recognized. Why, then, do you not prostrate yourself before one who powers are greater than those of any mortal sovereign?”
“We recognize only those authorities which have been ordained by heaven,” said the monk. “The source of your powers, however, comes from a different realm entirely…”
The Erlking rose to his feet. He was nearly seven feet tall. The young woman smiled as the monk took a step back in order to meet the Erlking’s eyes without having to look up. “For untold centuries,” said the Erlking, “my subjects and I have held unchallenged sway over the fens and forests of this entire island. And you—Christians—imagine that your power, not even a millennia old, can contend with one which was born with the world?!”
“I came here,” said the monk, “not to contend with you, but offer mercy.”
“What?!” The Erlking’s eyes flashed fire. The young woman’s eyes were riveted on her sovereign, as were the eyes of all the other creatures of the forest. She knew this would soon be over, and that the poor monk would pay for his impudence.
The monk looked around the clearing and spoke with a raised voice, “At dawn,” he said, “this forest will be destroyed—burnt until only ash remains. A great number of villages stand nearby, and we know that the people of these villages have for centuries, come to this forest to offer pagan rites and hold sacrifice—no more will this be allowed to continue. The Holy Church has claimed this land for Christ.” the monk’s eyes flitted to the young woman, who stood to her feet as he spoke.
“You are a fool to come warning us now,” said the Erlking, “at the darkest hour of night, when our powers are the greatest.”
“As I said,” said the monk, “I come to offer mercy.” The monk took off his satchel and placed it carefully on the ground. He kneeled down and removed its contents. Standing, the spirits of the forest now saw in his hands a silver chalice, a wineskin, and a loaf of bread.
The young woman’s mouth opened slightly, and she turned her head to one side.
“The forest will be destroyed tomorrow,” continued the monk, “but I offer you the chance now for repentance. I do not know if even you have souls to redeem, but there is nothing too great for God—and Christ turns no penitent away … Great king, peoples of the forest, I beseech you—leave your wicked master. There is no life for you hereafter as you are, even if you were to live here for another thousand years…so small a time in the scheme of eternity. Receive the blessed sacrament, by which God grants forgiveness and redemption through the body of his holy Son…”
The young woman watched as the Erlking stared at the objects in the monk’s hand. She saw his face twist with an incommunicable rage; she saw him scream, and throw out his left hand toward the monk. A pulse of blue light enveloped the monk, and his body was engulfed in a light-blue flame. The young woman started, the fairies tittered, the goblins guffawed, and the satyr let out a satisfied snort, crossing his arms and grinning.
When the flame dissipated, the young woman gasped, and a hand went to her mouth. The monk, who should have been nothing more than a pile of cinder, stood before the Erlking unscathed. The monk sighed and closed his eyes. “Deo Gloria,” he muttered, “you are the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego still…” The young woman stood up, thunderstruck. What does this mean? She thought. Is their magic truly stronger than ours, as their followers say? The forest whispered that the Bodach of the southern marsh was taken by their prayers…Could it be true? Is our power at an end?
The Erlking stared at the monk, eyes wide and mouth open. The corners of his mouth drew downwards, and he nearly spat through clenched teeth, “Your great stone cathedrals will crumble into dust—you will be forgotten for ages—and we will have just begun our reign!” He turned and made his way to the end of the clearing that led deeper into the forest. The other creatures made their way out as the king began to move.
But the young woman remained where she was, standing looking at the monk. The Erlking stopped opposite her. Their eyes met—she did not move. The Erlking growled and proceeded past the tree-line into the forest.
The young woman looked back at the monk. Am I truly going to do what has come to my mind? What will happen if I do? She shivered. What will happen if I do not … She looked back at the monk, and then walked toward him.
She saw him sigh and then kneel to replace the contents of his satchel. “Mortal?”
“Yes?” The monk looked up. She was quite close, and when he looked at her, she saw his cheeks turn crimson. He quickly looked away. The young woman’s anger burned at the monk’s prudery—how many men, kings of your people, she thought, would brave all danger for a glimpse of what you now turn from? She sighed. Very well… She raised her hand, and vines and tendrils from the forest rose and wrapped themselves around her body, covering her figure past her knees. “You can look now without shame,” she said.
The monk looked back up. He saw that she was covered in the materials of the forest. He pointed at her. “You are—a dryad? I recognized the others, but could not tell what you were. But the way you controlled the vines just now—”
The young woman nodded her head. “Yes,” she said, “that is what the mortals of the village call my sisters and I.”
“What can I do for you, dear child? No less dear to God, I promise you.”
“I wish to receive this redemption you spoke of.”
The monk stood up and blinked. “You—you want to take the sacrament? Receive God’s forgiveness?”
In answer, the Dryad wandered the clearing, looking to the surrounding trees. “The people of the forest know no law. We acknowledge no sin, and therefore need no forgiveness. Our bodies are not like those of mortals—we give them without thought to all the pleasures of the flesh, and come to no harm by the offering. We know neither age nor disease, hunger nor thirst, heat nor cold, want nor any unrequited desire…all those things that you call sinful, ugly and destructive, we call beautiful and life-giving. We of the forest can never be ‘fallen’”.
“You may live in unending pleasures here,” said the monk, “but even if you survive unto the very end of the world, you will then learn that there is a higher life—and a higher law.”
The Dryad stopped in her reverie. “I need no forgiveness,” she insisted, “…but I have become weary of my life here—weary of pleasures. Why should I not try this new thing?”
The monk raised his hands. “My child,” he said, “one should not become a follower of Christ out of mere curiosity.” He looked at her and sighed. “You know, you look to me to be no more than twenty, but I am sure you are at least a century older than myself. But a child still, in experience if not in years; you must understand,” he said, “if you take the sacrament, you cannot stay here. Your life will be forever different from what it has been. You will have to leave everything you have always known.”
The Dryad looked once more at the surrounding trees. Everything will change, she thought. I know he is right—I feel it. She put her hand on the bark closest to her and looked up into the canopy. Is this the last time I shall call you ‘sister’? The last time I watch the Erlking call all the creatures of the forest in a round and chant to the gods at the votive fire? The last time I watch the fairies dance in the trees at twilight? The last time I see a mortal from the village come to give an offering of blood to the Erlking? The last time I see a mortal man and woman, mad with the passions of love, come to the altar stone and have their consummation blessed…?
…so be it. She looked back to the monk, her face shaded with sadness, but resolute “I understand,” she said. “But I know you are right—our time here is ending. I do not want to change, to give up all the pleasures of my life here…but I do want to live.” She breathed deeply. “I understand the danger,” she said, “and I accept.”
“Very Well.” The monk kneeled and retrieved the elements once again from the satchel and placed them on the ground before him. “Then,” he said, “receive the blessed sacrament of our lord Christ Jesus. Kneel on the ground here before me, with head bowed, eyes closed, and hands clasped together.”
The Dryad did as the monk asked. “Repeat these words after me,” he said. “My God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee…”
“My God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee…”
“…and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell…”
“…and I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell…”
“…but most all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love…”
“…but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love…”
“…I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, amend my life…”
“…I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, amend my life…”
The monk then took the chalice and poured a measure of wine into it. He tore off a piece of the loaf of bread, dipped it into the chalice, and placed it into the Dryad’s open mouth. “Receive the forgiveness of our lord Christ Jesus, which he has offered to you through the sacrifice of his b—”
As soon as the Dryad felt the bread go down her throat, her face began to grow warm, then hot. What…what is happening? What is this? The heat was at first uncomfortable, then it became piercing. It was as if someone had replaced her blood with fire—a fire that travelled through her arms to her fingers; down through her chest to her stomach, down her legs to her heels to the points of her toes. She doubled over, clasping her arms around her stomach. Oh gods…oh gods, what is this? She looked up to the monk with a face wide-eyed and twisted in pain. “What is this, mortal? Have you brought me to your god for him to poison me? What is happening to me!?”
The monk looked at the Dryad, stupefied and open-mouthed. “I…I don’t know…I…”
A surge of fire shot up the Dryad’s spine into her brain. The Dryad screamed and clapped her hands to her forehead, leaning back. Her whole body was alight with the feeling of a thousand needles piercing her skin at every point. Overcome by the pain, the Dryad collapsed onto the forest floor, twisting and cradling her body. Is this death? She thought. Am I going to die? The fire shot once more into her brain; her back arched and she let out another scream. What have I done? It was the only thought in her mind, the only thing she could do. What have I done? What have I done?
And as suddenly as it had come, the pain subsided. The Dryad, bereft of strength and vitality, collapsed onto the forest floor and began to take deep, slow breaths. Something is wrong, she thought. She felt a sudden emptiness and vulnerability that she had never felt before. The feel of her feet on the forest floor, the touch of her skin and the vines of her dress in her hands—all slightly more pronounced, as if her skin had become more tender.
The Dryad did not have the strength to move, and lay just on the edge of consciousness. She was about to drift to sleep, when another new sensation alarmed her. She felt the leaves, vines, and tendrils that had formed her magical covering begin to unravel and fade into detritus. For the first time in her life, the Dryad began to feel something she had never felt before—shame. How many kings of men and priests of the old faith had she wantonly displayed her naked body to? It was ever her prized treasure—but now, in the presence of this monk…she was still too weak to move, and the encroaching shame was terrible—even more terrible than the pain she felt after taking the sacrament—this shame went deep, far deeper than the pain of the body. Oh gods, this is a new torture—just let me sleep—let me not—
She felt something warm and soft placed over her body just as the materials of the forest faded away. She could just barely move her fingers to feel it—coarse cloth. His robe, she thought, he covered me—covered me with his own clothing…why? How many men would give anything to see what he had almost seen…why does he do this?
Slowly, the Dryad stirred and pulled the robe around her body. She sat up, and held the robe closed against her. She looked at the monk, dressed now only in a cloth tunic and leather belt. She held out her right arm and examined it, then bowed her head and began to weep silently.
“My child,” said the monk, “why are you crying?”
“I have lost the light of the forest,” said the Dryad.
“Yes,” said the monk, “I thought I saw that something was different—there was a soft glow to your skin—it gave you and your people an almost other-worldly beauty. It must have been a sign of your immortality.” He paused. “Beautiful you are still, my child, but not—I think—”
“—Immortal,” said the Dryad, tears rolling down her cheeks. She looked at the ground and shook her head. “I have known ecstasies of the body that would turn your celibate mind to ash.” She rubbed one arm against the other. “And now—look at me. This body looks like the earth—like dust!” In a spasm of violent grief, the Dryad threw herself on the ground and pulled a bramble from the forest floor, roots and all. She took the branch of thorns in her left hand, and plunged it into her right arm. She pulled it across her fore-arm, making a deep gash from which blood flowed freely. “Oh gods,” said the Dryad, “It is made of paper!”
The monk gasped. He threw himself toward the Dryad and wrapped his hands over the gash in her arm to stop the flow of blood.
“What have I done,” the Dryad moaned softly. “What have I done? There is…,” The Dryad let out a deep breath and sat still. I understand now, she thought. I must leave the forest because I cannot now live here. The forest has not changed—I have. She looked at her arm. The blood was beginning to harden. So, she thought, this is mortality…I— the Dryad felt as if a heavy weight had been lowered onto her head. She could not hold her eyes open. Darkness enveloped her vision, and she knew no more.
The first sensation the Dryad felt was one of pleasing warmth. A soft fabric caressed her skin, and her head felt cool. Slowly, she opened her eyes and looked around. She was in a small room with walls and floors of stone. The bed in which she lay had a simple wooden frame that sat close to the ground. There was a small table by her bed on which rested a single large book, and next to the table was a wooden chair. Set into the wall beside her was a window through which came the morning light. Besides these, the room had no other ornament. The Dryad stirred—something was different. She pulled up the white covers and looked at her body—it had been washed. She had on a single white robe which came down to her ankles, and the gash on her arm was wrapped in a linen bandage. What happened? Where Am I?
As she lay back, looking at the ceiling, the large wooden door to the room was opened, and a woman of about middle age entered. She wore a long, black robe, and draped over her head was a veil that came down her back. This was also black, but bordered in white. She carried in her hands a bowl of water in which rested a towel. The woman closed the door, and smiled when she saw that the girl in the bed was awake.
“Oh,” said the woman, “you’re awake! Thank heaven…we were worried.”
“Brother Edward and I,” said the woman, “He brought you here nearly three nights ago. He told me—about you. It is a miraculous story.”
The Dryad knitted her brows. Three nights ago… “And—where am I?” she asked, “Who are you?”
“You are in the Nunnery of St. Æthelthryth,” said the woman. “and my name is Sister Margaret.”
“And,” said the Dryad, “you have been looking after me while I was asleep?”
“Thank you,” said the Dryad, “I—I would have died in the forest without your care.”
Sister Margaret smiled. “For that, you should thank Brother Edward.” She took the chair by the table, moved it next to the bed, and sat down. She took the towel from the bowl, wrung it out, and placed it on the Dryad’s forehead. The Dryad sighed and relaxed at the towel’s cool touch. “And what is your name, fair one?” said Sister Margaret.
The Dryad paused for a moment and creased her brows again. “I have not been called by a name in a long time,” she said. “The peoples of the forest have no need of such distinctions.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She thought of a night in the forest, she and her sisters held hands in a circle around a small votive flame. They knelt together and then each spoke in turn: I, Aster, offer my spirit to the Queen of the Earth; I, Calanthe, offer my spirit to the Queen of the Earth, I… “Viviane,” she said, her eyes fluttering open. “The name my sisters called me was Viviane.”
“Your sisters?” asked the nun.
“Yes,” said Viviane. “My sisters and I were one in the forest—it is difficult to explain. Each tree has a spirit, but I have sisters, just as a mortal would—and a mother and father.”
“Who are your mother and father?” asked Sister Margaret. “Other Dryads?”
“No,” said Viviane. “Only my sisters and I are spirits of the trees. Father is lord of the sky, and mother queen of the earth.”
“Oh,” said Sister Margaret. “I see…”
“Yes,” said Viviane. “The name among my sisters was Viviane. My sisters of the forest.” She felt a dizziness in her head, and a sudden terror clutched her heart. The forest—! Her eyes widened, and she looked at Sister Margaret. The nun must have known what was in her thoughts; her gaze went to the ground, cheeks reddened, and she folded her hands together.
Slowly, Viviane took the towel from her head and removed the covers. With a great effort, she moved her legs over the side of the bed and placed her feet on the stone floor. She stood slowly and walked to the window; she began to fall, but braced herself against the bed-frame. She stood again and reached the window, leaning against the stool.
Viviane gazed out through the window past the bounds of the monastery. What she saw was just at the edge of the skyline, but immediately recognizable. Stretched across the edge of the horizon were mounds of ash and splintered wood—great swaths of flotsam and jetsam that had once been tall, mighty trees. Gone…all gone. Viviane stared in complete silence, and then lowered her head. She felt the strength once more depart from her body; her legs gave out, and darkness took her once again.
The next morning, Viviane sat in the bed in her cell, her legs drawn up to her chest and her arms wrapped around them. She sat, her head turned toward the window, looking out to the forest. There was a knock on the cell door.
“Who is it?”
The door opened, and the face of Sister Margaret appeared.
“May I come in?” asked the nun.
Viviane nodded her head.
“How…” began Sister Margaret, entering the room, “How do you feel? If you don’t mind my saying, you look—content. Serene, almost. Has something happened?”
“I—I am not sure,” said Viviane. “In the forest I knew the love of many men—great men. I knew a strong bond of love between my sisters and I. But now, I feel a different love—more pure, almost perfect; entirely untainted by any selfish desire for its return.”
Sister Margaret walked to the cot and sat down, “You have received the love of God,” she said. “It is the greatest gift of a truly repentant heart.”
Viviane nodded. “Yes,” she said. “I think I understand that now. I remember the things I did in my life before, and the memory of it causes me pain.”
“You are feeling God’s despair for your sin as well as His love for you—the one does not come without the other.” Viviane nodded again. “But I am surprised,” said Sister Margaret, “I thought you would have left us and gone out into the wide world.”
“I nearly did,” said Viviane.
“I have…dreams,” said Viviane. “I always had them in the forest—dreams that would show me things that actually happened. Do you understand?”
Sister Margaret nodded.
“It was how my sisters and I over this entire land would speak to one another,” said Viviane. “Last night, they came to me many times.”
“Then,” said Sister Margaret, “they are alive?”
“Yes,” said Viviane, smiling a little, “The court was able to flee to another part of the world before your monks came.”
“Oh,” said Sister Margaret, “I am sure you were relieved to hear that!”
“Yes,” said Viviane. She became silent and bowed her head.
“What is the matter, child?” asked Sister Margaret.
Viviane looked at Sister Margaret; she felt a sting in her eyes, and she knew they must be red with weeping. “They came to me to tell me the court was safe … but… but that I had been cast out.”
“Father knew what I had done,” said Viviane. “That I had taken your sacrament and become a Christian. He was furious—he came to me last night in dreams after my sisters, something he almost never does. He came and told me that no longer would he call me ‘daughter’.”
Viviane laid her head down on her knees. Sister Margaret rose and placed her arms around the young woman. Viviane wrapped her arms around the nun’s neck and buried her head in the nun’s shoulder, her body shaking with sobs.
“Oh, Viviane,” said Sister Margaret. “Dear one, I am so sorry…,”
After a time, Viviane’s body calmed, and she let go of Sister Margaret, who sat back down. “Forgive me,” she said. “I am all right—really. I knew something like this must have happened when I took the sacrament. I understand now—the light of the forest has left me because I am no longer a part of it. I have been separated from its people and its gifts,” she paused. “Whatever I do now,” she said, “I cannot go back to my former life.”
“Maybe you should speak with Brother Edward?” said Sister Margaret.
Viviane nodded. “Yes,” she said. Sister Margaret rose and made her way to the door, “perhaps he can explain my other dreams,” said Viviane.
The nun turned, “other dreams?”
“I saw brother oak,” said Viviane, “tall and mighty, his head reaching into heaven. A group of men, cruel and callous, their faces twisted and hard, came and cut brother oak down. I saw the life drain from the trunk; the spirit within wasted away, and the animals who sought refuge in its hallow deserted it forever. They took the oak to a carpenter who hewed it into a malevolent shape. I saw it set in the open air; this thing of life and beauty transfigured into a cruel weapon of torture; men were nailed to its frame…”
Sister Margaret sat down slowly.
“There were three men, each nailed to a tree. The two on either end had faces twisted in anger. But the man in the center—his face was full of sorrow. Almost as if he was saddened more by the fate of the men beside him rather than his own. Night came, and the man breathed his last. The bodies were taken down, and a great crowd of the sons of men followed the corse of the man of sorrow.”
“In the darkest hour of the night, after the people had well departed and not a man was seen, I beheld my kindred—elves, fairies, satyrs, goblins, fauns; all lead by the father of the sky himself—come from the veil of shadows; they gathered around the tree and did it homage. They burnt votive offerings, and praised the king of the underworld. A lark began to sing, and they departed—that’s when I was awakened.”
Viviane looked at Sister Margaret. “Tell me, this man—did he truly live? I want to know more about the man of sorrow—to understand what he did that deserved death, and why the king of the sky so rejoiced at it. Does Brother Edward know of him?”
“…I believe he does,” said Sister Margaret.
One month later, Viviane became a member of the monastery. Her young mind, coupled with centuries of experience, made her a particularly quick learner; Sister Margaret confessed that she had never met a pupil so willing or apt, and Viviane’s confirmation in the basic doctrines of the Church took almost no time at all. Having an exhaustive knowledge of plants and their properties, Viviane was tasked with keeping the monastery’s grounds. She tended a garden the outer court, and kept the herbarium—a small wooden shack next to the monastery in which was stored medicinal plants and herbs. Here also she slept in a small back room furnished with a simple cot, though she had the freedom of the nunnery and its grounds.
After Viviane had been active in her duties for some weeks, Brother Edward, along with a handful of the other monks, soon began to notice something strange: The early chill of winter was coming on with the end of October; and though the meadowland outside the monastery’s walls had begun to brown with Winter frost, the garden looked to be in the fullest bloom of mid-Spring, and the herbarium shelves seemed to exhibit a greater variety of plant and herb than ever before.
One evening, as Viviane sat in her small home, drinking cider from a small pewter mug, and reading from the early church fathers, she heard a knock on the herbarium door.
She looked up from her book, “Yes? Who is it?”
“Viviane?” said the voice of Sister Margaret. “I am here with Brother Edward—may we come in and speak with you?”
Viviane was anxious; she had not seen Sister Margaret in some days, and the two of them had never visited her together. Is something wrong? she wondered. She placed her book on the small table in the front room and went to the door and opened it. “Of course,” she said, “you are welcome at any time.”
The two came in and sat in the chairs before the small table. “There is something we would like to ask you,” said Brother Edward, as Viviane closed the door and came back to her chair. “Tell us—how do you like your life here?”
“Oh,” said Viviane. “It’s very good. It is not at all the same as in the forest, but I knew it wouldn’t be…the sisters here are all very kind, and I am glad to be of service.”
“Is there,” said Sister Margaret, “anything else you would like to do?”
Viviane paused, taken slightly aback. She looked at the Brother and Sister. She shrugged her shoulders. “No—I—I really do not think there is anything else I can do. I have no knowledge of anything but the forest and its produce.”
“And you don’t find your life here—dull?” asked Brother Edward.
Viviane shook her head. “No,” she said. “Why—do you—want me to leave?”
“No,” said Sister Margaret. “Not at all.” But we do want to offer you a choice.” She paused. “You can stay here, if you want …or…,”
“Or go into the outside world,” said Viviane. She sighed, and turned her head to look out of the window. She looked at the courtyard and grounds of the monastery, alive with the flora of the latter Spring. “And what would I do there?” she asked, “Be a gardener?”
“Well,” said Brother Edward, “You might marry,” Viviane looked up at Brother Edward, eyes widened “… I know of men in the outside world—good men from high-born families. You would never want for anything. They are kind and treat their servants well. And you,” he said, “you they would treat like a Queen. And then, of course—”
“Children,” said Viviane. “I could have children.”
“Daughters of your own,” said Sister Margaret. “Think of that.”
Viviane smiled and looked out of the window again. “I don’t know,” she said. “Never have I thought about … being a mother.” She was silent for some time.
“There is,” said Brother Edward, “one final choice—but it would be the most difficult one, and it should not be taken without a great deal of thought and prayer.”
“I know you still grieve for the loss of your family,” said Sister Margaret. Viviane turned her face back to the window, closed her eyes, and took in a deep breath. She put a hand to her cheek and slowly exhaled. “If you want,” Sister Margaret continued slowly, “There is a chance for you to belong to another type of family—a Father and Sisters for those who have deserted you.”
A Father and Sisters? Viviane knitted her brows. She looked at Sister Margaret. Then, her face expanded and her eyes widened. “Sister” she said,” You are asking if I would like to join your nunnery—to become a nun?”
“Yes,” said Sister Margaret “If you want to … you would still be shut out from the outside world, much like you were in the forest, but you will be surrounded by people that love you as you have not been loved before; people who will draw you nearer and nearer to God, until you are one with his love, and know him fully.”
Viviane looked to the floor. “It would be good to be with – others like me,” she said.
“No,” said Viviane, “sisters in Christ. The gifts of the forest are fading from me—started fading since I took the sacrament. If there was ever any doubt, I know now,” she paused. “…I will not be a dryad for much longer.”
Both Edward and Margaret sat silently. Viviane looked to her small cot. “Let me—sleep on it,” she said.
“Yes,” said Brother Edward, “of course”.
In the deep hours of twilight, Viviane left her shed; her hair wrapped in her handkerchief and a shawl draped over her shoulders. The outer world was dark, but she knew the way well. Several minutes after beginning her journey, she stopped before the border of the forest she once called home, where sat all she had known of the world. There, at the threshold, she spread herself out on the ground, her arms reaching toward the forest while her feet stretched toward the monastery. And there, she poured out sorrow to heaven from the wellspring in the deepest recesses of her heart, accompanied with many tears.
The next morning, she joined the nunnery as a postulant.
In even the first week of her postulancy, the sisters of the nunnery agreed among themselves that Viviane’s candidacy was an almost settled affair. Her commitment to the order and all of its creed and communal rites, as well as her sacrificial love shared among the sisters, had no equal among the other postulants that season. After just three months, the Mother Superior deemed her ready for taking of the veil.
As Viviane participated in the veil ceremony, there occurred one or two incidents which the sisters could not satisfactorily explain. Before having the habit placed on her head, Viviane’s hair was to be cut short, a sign that she rejected forever this attribute of feminine seduction. An elder sister stood behind Viviane as she sat in a chair before her, her rich brown hair draped over the back. The sister took a large pair of shears and cut the hair close to the nape of Viviane’s neck. She placed it on a silver platter reserved for the purpose—and Viviane’s hair instantly grew back to its full length. The sister stared at it for some moments, not quite sure what to do. Viviane’s face blushed a deep scarlet.
“I am sorry,” she said, “I have never had my hair cut before.”
Knowing not what else to do, the sister cut it again—and out it grew again. A third time, and a fourth. At the fifth cutting, by which time the hair stayed shorn, the elder sister could do nothing more than place the hair on its salver, shedding tears and muttering “such beautiful hair… such beautiful hair.”
Viviane placed her hand in the sister’s “It’s all right, Sister Alice,” she said. “I have made this choice of my own free will—you bear no guilt, if any guilt there is.”
Viviane stood before Mother Superior with her hair shorn, dressed in robes of white and grey, reflective of the stone and statuary that surrounded them. She then kneeled and bowed her head before the Mother Superior, who held in her hands two wreaths. In her left hand she held a wreath covered with bright, fragrant flowers. In her right, a wreath of thorns. “My child,” she said, “by having your hair cut, you show that you are willing to reject the physical beauty and pleasure of this world,” she held up the wreaths, “which wreath do you choose, as befitting your new station as a bride of Christ?”
“I choose the wreath of thorns, Mother,” said Viviane. “For by them I show that I have rejected the pleasures of the world, and am united to Christ in his sufferings.” Viviane raised her hands above her head, the palms pointing upward.
Viviane felt the Mother Superior place the wreath of thorns on her upturned hands. “May God grant you the grace to live a life that knows neither the world nor its pleasures,” she said, “By taking the—Ah!” The Mother Superior let out a stifled scream as she looked down to Viviane, stopping the words of the rite. Margaret and a number of the other nuns came out to see what had happened to the novitiate.
Viviane looked up at the Mother’s exclamation and felt a weight descend on her forehead. “Oh, dear—oh no,” she apologized breathlessly, “no—I didn’t mean to, honestly.” The other nuns and the Mother Superior stared at the Neophyte, open-mouthed.
The wreath in Viviane’s hands was covered all around in an array of the brightest, most colorful wildflowers any of them had ever seen.
Viviane could hear the other nuns whisper among themselves, “Who does this girl think she is?”, “Did she actually take the flowered wreath in her hands rather than the thorned?”, “What arrogance!” Viviane lowered her head, shame and embarrassment sweeping over her body.
But her heart leapt soon after as she saw Sister Margaret striding quickly up to the Mother Superior, whose face clearly showed that this particular turn of events was an accident of ministry not before encountered.
“Praise to our Savior and his blessed mother!” exclaimed Margaret, beaming as brightly as her face allowed. “I see our lord has great plans for this young one—not even in the veil yet, and already a miracle! God will do great things through this child, trust me, Mother!”
The Mother Superior faltered for just a moment, but recovered quickly, “Yes,” she said, “yes, indeed—we expect great things from you child.” She took the wreath from Viviane’s hands and placed it on the sacramental table behind her next to the other flowered wreath. Viviane saw the Mother blink for a moment at this odd doubling, before she shook her head and turned back around. Viviane then closed her eyes and felt the Mother place the wimple and habit on her head. She opened her eyes and looked into the Mother Superior’s face.
“From today onwards,” she said, “You will no longer bear the name given by your father. From now until the end of your life, you will be known as Sister …,” she looked back at the wreath that flowered, and then at Viviane. “Chloe. Rise, Sister Chloe.”
Viviane, now Sister Chloe, stood, and was embraced by the Mother Superior. After this, every nun of the convent gathered around and embraced her each in turn. Finally, she felt the firm embrace of Sister Margaret’s large, matronly arms. She looked into her smiling face and felt a warmth in her heart that she did not remember feeling, even in the forest. “Welcome home,”.
After half a year, Sister Chloe felt the life within the convent walls settle into a simple rhythm: rising, morning prayer, matins, devotion and meditation, confessions, walks around the convent and its grounds, visiting nearby villages to offer charity or to teach, vespers, evening prayer, sleep. The rhythm felt like seasons, and practice bred growth.
There were interruptions to the rhythm. One afternoon, Sister Chloe lay in bed, her legs pulled up to her body. She had woken with a horrible, twisting pain sitting in her stomach.
A knock on the door. It was Sister Margaret “Sister Chloe, you were not at matins—are you feeling unwell?” she asked.
Sister Chloe could barely move, but she was able to just nod her head in answer.
Sister Chloe held out a hand that contained a cluster of bare shoots, “wild-berries,” she said, “A thicket on the edge of the common land. I took some yesterday during our walk through the grounds. They looked so delicious.”
“Oh,” said Sister Margaret.
“I don’t understand,” said Chloe. “I mean, I have not ever… in the time before, I tasted of all the trees and bushes of the forest. Never have they given me sickness.”
“You are changing,” said Sister Margaret. “Not just on the outside, but inside as well—you must have a stomach-ache.”
“Is that what you call it?” asked Chloe, turning on the bed, a hand on her stomach, “oh, it is awful! How do you mortals cope with such weak bodies?”
“I’ll make you a purgative,” said Sister Margaret.
“A what?” said Sister Chloe.
“Best not to ask,” said Sister Margaret.
One afternoon, Sister Chloe was visiting a farmer in a nearby village who had taken ill. Stepping outside, she saw a murder of crows pecking at a stockpile of grains and corn in the farmer’s wheelbarrow.
“Friend crows,” she said, approaching them, “leave the farmer’s grain alone—how would you like it if I came to your nest and stole your food?” She waved her hands, “Fly off—back to the trees.”
Nothing happened. Are all the gifts of the forest to depart from me? She could always understand the language of birds, but the angry caws coming from the wheelbarrow sounded only like angry caws. The farmer’s stock had to be saved, and after one or two attempts to make the crows take flight by waving her arms, Sister Chloe took up a broom and beat the sack of grain. The crows scattered instantly, cawing angrily, and one looked to have a damaged wing. Sister Chloe dropped the broom, walked over to the farmer’s doorstep, sat down, and buried her face in her hands.
Sister Chloe succumbed to another great illness when the winter chill fell upon the nunnery’s grounds. While most of the other Sisters came through the season with bad colds, Chloe lay in bed for many days, shaking with terrible fever. Sister Margaret looked after her once again, and changed her linens on a daily basis. The fever broke after more than a week, but left Sister Chloe greatly reduced in both mind and body.
“Margaret,” asked Chloe, “why does the cold pierce my body so much more fiercely than those of the other Sisters?”
“Because, Sister, I expect you have never felt it before,” said Sister Margaret.
After her fever broke, Sister Chloe opened her eyes and turned to the window in her cell. On the sill was a jar of lilacs brought by one of the other nuns. Sister Chloe saw that the lilacs had begun to wilt. She cupped the jar in her hands, “live again”, she breathed. The lilacs bloomed for a moment, and then wilted into brown stalks Sister Chloe closed her eyes and bowed her head. A tear ran down her cheek.
The steady rhythm of the nunnery turned into weeks, then into months, and finally into many years. Ten years passed since her arrival, but Sister Chloe seemed not to age. It was the last gift of the forest to leave her. Nevertheless, as the Sisters she had known as a postulant began to die and were buried, this last gift turned into yet another curse.
On the morning after Sister Margaret was buried, Sister Chloe went into her cell and shut the door. She knelt beside her bed, and turned her face to heaven. “Father Almighty,” she said, “Where—where are the sisters I once had? Where is the mother, the father, the home? Where is the smooth, beautiful body I once had? Why can I not eat what I want, drink what I want? Why do I freeze in the winter and scorch in the summer? Why can I not commune with your created world as I once did? Why can I no more give life to the fruits of the earth? You do not give gifts—you only take them away!”
A knock came on Sister Chloe’s door. She wiped her eyes, rose, and opened it. “Yes, Sister Alice?” she asked.
“Forgive me for disturbing your prayers, sister, but Sister Justine requests your advice in the herbarium.”
Sister Chloe nodded. “All right—I will be there shortly.” She looked at the crucifix on her cell wall. No answer? she thought. …very well.
Moments later, Sister Chloe knocked on the post of the herbarium, where there stood Sister Justine, looking over a set of potted plants. “Ah, Sister Chloe,” she said, “Thank you for coming.”
“How may I be of service to you, Sister?”
“These daffodils,” she said. They just are not growing as they should—what am I missing?”
Sister Chloe looked at them carefully. She cupped her hands over the flower-bed and muttered something.
“What did you say?” asked Sister Justine.
Sister Chloe looked down at the flower-bed, which stood exactly as it had before. “Oh, nothing,” she said. She looked closely at the potted soil and took a pinch of it in her fingers. “It’s the soil,” she said. “It is old and dried. You need to pot them freshly again.”
“Yes, of course,” said Sister Justine. “I should have realized—well, sorry for taking you away from morning prayers.”
“It is quite all right, sister.” Sister Chloe turned to leave the herbarium, but stopped when a tangle of vines in the corner of the shed caught her eye. “What is this?” she asked, pointing to a withered clump of unopened buds.
“That was to be a spray of roses,” said Sister Justine, “some fine ones by the look of the stock.”
“What happened?” asked Sister Chloe.
“There was a canker in one of the stems,” said Sister Justine, “The canker spread and withered the lot.”
“Could the spread of the disease not have been stopped?” asked Sister Chloe.
“It could have,” said Justine, “but I was away when they were first gathered.”
Chloe closed her eyes. She could feel tears begin to form as she asked a question she already knew the answer to. “And what would you have done if you were here—how is it that you rid the plant of disease so that it can grow to its fullest beauty?”
“Surely you know that,” said Justine, “You prune it—cut away all that which hinders growth and is diseased. Any unwholesome attachment must be cut away, or the life of the plant will shrivel and die. But pruned, the leaves will produce a hundred-fold more than they could on their own.”
Unwholesome attachment, thought Chloe. The mother, the father, the sisters…the body, the gifts, the powers…Sister Chloe placed her hand over her mouth and bent down her head; her body shook as silent tears coursed down her face without interruption.
“Sister Chloe,” said Justine after many moments of silence, “Are you all right?”
Chloe breathed in deeply and then back out. She wiped the tears from her face as best she could. “Yes, Sister Justine,” she said, “I am well.” She paused. “Let me ask—do you mind if I take those roses—see if I can tend to them?”
Justine nodded. “Yes,” she said, “all right. But truly, there is not much hope for them—they might be too far gone.”
Sister Chloe smiled, “No,” she said, “I do not think so.”
“What,” said Sister Justine, “can you do magic?”
“Not anymore,” said Sister Chloe, “But I’ll manage.”
The nuns of the convent had always taken to Sister Chloe. She was kind and loving, but quiet and introverted—more and more so as the years progressed. Now, however, Chloe’s entire demeanor seemed changed. It happened at about the same time that she had begun to care for the withered rose-bush which sat in her cell. After weeks of careful tending, the roses began to regain their life and open once more. The nuns of the convent would often say that Chloe had begun to bloom just as her roses did. It was like a resurrection.
Years passed. Decades. Eventually, Sister Chloe became Mother Superior and lived past her hundredth year. By her final years, she would sit teaching postulants and the children of the village. On the table by her bedside stood her rose-bush, which had come to a full bloom. It was not large, but, inexplicably, had not withered—even after seventy years. There were none alive who knew Chloe before, but the legend had become that the rose-bush was as old as she was, and that when it died, so would she.
One night, after vespers, Sister Chloe retired to her room, more tired in body than she had ever felt before. She looked at the rose bush. After a short prayer of thanksgiving, she stood up and removed her habit and coif. Her hair, again grown long, tumbled down below her shoulders. She then removed her tunic, and stood, naked, on the stones of her cell floor. Placing her clothes into the trunk on the floor, she took the pot in which stood the rose-bush, and placed it next to the bed. Without pulling back the covers, she laid down on her bed. Laying back, she pushed her right hand deep into the soil of the clay pot.
The next morning, Sister Chloe did not appear for matins. A postulant went to her room and knocked on the door. There was no answer. She opened it, and looked in.
There, in the bed, lay Sister Chloe, her eyes closed in the peaceful death of a saint. Her hand, matted with soil, lay on the floor beside her bed. The rose-bush, which had not changed in many years, had burst the confines of its pot overnight:
Shards of the pot were scattered across the floor, along with hundreds of rose petals which covered both floor, bed, and body of the sister. The bush had delved its roots into the ground under the cell floor, pushing through the seams between the now broken floor-stones. The young postulant stared, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, at the small bush that had become a tree; its trunk reaching to the ceiling of the cell. Its canopy, covered in bloomed roses, spread across the entirety of the cell’s ceiling, and hunger over the bedside of the dear departed Sister. Chloe’s window was open, and a dozen or more birds from the outside world had flown into the room and lighted on the tree’s branches. Over the sun-clothed, petal-covered body of the Neophyte, they greeted the morning air with songs of joy.