So… I submitted a short story (featured below, in fact) to the magazine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. I’m really terribly anxious about this. I’ve basically spent every minute since submitting my work panicking or sleeping. But que sera, sera. Odysseus fought against cyclops and Poseidon, damn it. Rejection and the unknown have nothing on me. And whatever happens, I’m proud of my work. So please, please enjoy.
The Guardian of the Forest
by Robert James Mediavilla
“What is,” the young antlered woman questioned for the first time in an hour, “a guardian of the forest without a forest?”
Her voice boomed with divine wrath.
The other customers, who had been staring intently over half-eaten stacks of hotcakes and peering through man-made tears in the Sunday funnies–right between Family Circus and B.C.–sprang from their seats, tipped their hats and gave small waves, then politely excused themselves from Taylor’s Country Diner. The door chime screeched with each departure, pausing only when the age-old conflict between curiosity and self-preservation took hold. Once the last bell chimed, only three remained: Ben Taylor, current owner of Taylor’s Country Diner; June “Junie” Taylor, reluctant future owner of Taylor’s Country Diner; and, most importantly, the “guardian of the forest,” the antlered woman whose name was both unknown and irrelevant.
Since first laying eyes on her, however, June had taken to calling her “Acacia.”
June knew her daddy had been expecting Acacia’s visit, of course, ever since “Luckless” Steve Montana called Ben up out of the blue several months ago. “What is…” was all Luckless could whimper before the line went cold. Two days later, the papers reported him dead: the fifth of the workers in three months to die. But more importantly, he was the first to complain of the “reindeer lady,” with her writhing chestnut hair, her bronzed skin, and her wild antlers, which grew from her skull like branches from a cedar, piercing and binding the world around them.
No one paid Luckless or his ramblings any mind, and no one ever would. As for the Reindeer Lady, who “sprang from Luckless’ liquored thoughts,” she was all but dismissed by the higher ups on the site, including June’s daddy. He scolded the workers when they claimed to have seen her in their dreams or when the men would whisper of her vengeance over the remains of their broken equipment. He pretended not to hear the oddly-human shrieks that echoed through the trees, when the moon hung high and the fireflies glowed like stars. But June believed; and she warned her daddy every day to take heed of Acacia’s warnings.
The months passed and the incidents worsened; yet Ben refused to listen to his daughter. What, now, did he have to show for his stubbornness? The empty, deforested lot remained an empty, deforested lot. He hadn’t much agreed with destroying the local land on account of some mall or government building, and he certainly had no interest in angering the powers that be; but the money was good, and if some strangers intended to tear his home apart anyway, why shouldn’t he turn a profit as well? How petty that excuse seemed to him now, as Acacia’s colorless eyes bore into his own. There was no sympathy in those eyes, no understanding. There was only… only…
“What is a guardian of the forest without a forest?” Acacia repeated and stood up. Ben’s Country Diner reacted violently to Acacia’s growing impatience. The bulbs flickered in wild cycles and then exploded, raining tiny drops of heat across the hardwood floors. A gust of wind shattered the windows and flooded into the room, showering every surface with splintered glass and twirling blades of grass. The winds orbited Acacia in an endless revolution, faster and faster, until she was lifted from the ground and suspended in the air. She hovered in place for a moment, her body bobbing up and down rhythmically, hypnotically, before she began her slow descent upon June.
Instinctively, Ben placed himself between his daughter and the force of vengeance, but a powerful force knocked him away. June couldn’t help but think back to the days when she fervently attended church. The days when she sat in awe of the stories of the wrathful God of her forefathers. She thought about God claiming the first-born children of Egypt in defense of his faithful Jews. That story had made her cry, made her question her faith. But now it seemed to her like the only lesson that ever mattered– thinly veiled warning of days to come.
The papers had reported more than just dead workers. There had been dead spouses. Dead grandparents. Dead children. Dead daughters. June’s daddy took away Acacia’s forest. June was her daddy’s forest.
A few weeks ago, when June first peeked at the newspaper clipping her daddy hid of Crystal Clearwater’s children strung up forty feet above the ground in a tree, branches penetrating and emerging from every orifice, she knew Acacia, like her vengeful God, would come for her. From that day forward, she had spent every free moment, and more than a handful of borrowed ones, with her daddy: a picnic here, a movie there, even extra time working at the diner–though she had hated how trapped she felt there, sorted neatly between the mugs and silverware. Her disdain for the restaurant, her fear of having her future decided for her, were now consumed by the shadow of the approaching Acacia. All that remained was regret. She should have told her daddy she loved him one, or two, or a thousand more times. She should have told him how proud she was of him for putting away the bottle, and for making peace with his parents, and for never forgetting Mom, and for-
Acacia’s hands wrapped around June’s throat like vines.
“Look, miss…please,” Ben pleaded, although his words fell, meek and brittle, from his mouth. “Not my daughter. Not my Junie. I didn’t… She… She warned me. Please. Don’t take her!”
Acacia kept her eyes seeded on June and continued to tighten her grip. June’s head throbbed in time with Acacia’s pulsating tendrils, and with each pulse her mouth tasted of dirt, and the crackle of flames popped in her ears. Ben threw himself at Acacia’s feet.
“Please. Not again. Not my daughter.” His words were no louder than a schoolboy’s prayer.
“She’s all… She’s all…” His voice caught in his throat. Acacia’s grip wavered slightly and in that moment June understood. Acacia’s hesitant grip dredged up June’s past like bile: years of weeping, of hiding, of running, of stealing, of cutting, of dreaming, and finally of healing. The image of her mother’s grave covered in weeds and brush filled her mind. Maybe she was becoming Acacia, maybe she was becoming more… maybe she was dying. But she knew. She understood.
“What is a husband without a wife?” June croaked. The sentiment spilled out slow and thick like sap. “What is a daughter without her mother?” Acacia’s eyes narrowed, and the corners of her mouth twitched.
“More riddles,” she hissed, although June could hear a faint crack in Acacia’s tone. June swallowed painfully and looked from Acacia to her daddy, and then back. She could atone for the sins of the father. She could reclaim the garden of Eden. Everything required a price.
“I remember how empty I felt when Mom died. How lonely. I was only 16,” June cried. “Doesn’t matter what age you are though. Suddenly you’re alone and you don’t seem like yourself, and the rest of the world is just a crushing weight… I used to hide out in the forest… your forest…”
The winds wailed and thrashed against the walls; the howl of wounded animal. Wildfires of molten light bulb innards flashed along the ground. Tiny rocks and shards of glass whipped through the air like gnats. Acacia inhaled a long, slow breath, and exhaled in one short, sharp release. Her cool breath washed over the room, extinguishing the savage display.
Acacia released June’s neck. Ben lunged for his daughter and wrapped her in his own arms. June coughed violently, expelling the soil, the rot, the truth from her system; but the flames still crackled in her ears. She had been released from Acacia’s thrall only physically. Acacia watched patiently, and spoke again only once June had time to recover and prepare.
“A guardian must always have a forest.” Acacia spat, the words bitter but necessary, like a tonic. “A price must always be paid.” Her gaze darkened over the embracing family. June nodded.
“I know,” June responded simply. Without looking at her daddy, she gently squeezed his hands and moved away. Acacia lifted June up and kissed her, lightly and without affection, on the forehead and on the knuckles of each of her hands. June’s skin tingled beneath Acacia’s lips, sealed and branded.
June wondered if she dreaded the bondage of the diner so because Acacia’s roots had burrowed into her childhood self, unsuspecting and wistful. Ben watched the ritual wordlessly, petrified by inevitability, by fate, by God’s wrath. But June would live. She would grow. Acacia would heal. Maybe one day he would not die alone.
Acacia thought nothing. She hoped for nothing. She led June from the diner, from her mother’s grave, from her father, and into the wild.