The flat seemed empty, like my life. Oh, physically it was the same; the same furniture, books, bedding, but there was an aching void left by the departure of the girl who had been sharing my life off and on for the previous six months. Not even a photo – for some reason she had refused to be photographed. The one attempt I'd made to sneak a snap when she wasn't looking had failed; so blurred (I assumed by camera shake) as to be unrecognisable.
It wasn't the first time I'd been without her – she'd been prone to take off for a day or two every week, mysteriously refusing to say where she'd been – but she'd always returned, fresh and bright. Until the day I'd pressed her to tell me where she went when she disappeared.
"I cannot tell, Steve."
"Why not? Is there someone else?"
"How can you ask that? I love you! There will never be anyone else. Please don't try to force me, Steve. I just can not say."
I'd turned away from her; she'd sighed and left the room. The next day, I'd returned from work and she'd gone. She'd never had much 'stuff', but what she had, had all gone. She'd never done that before.
I closed my eyes, trying to hold on to an image of her – tall, slim, hair a rich reddish brown, eyes grey/green; graceful, lithe and supple. A tear squeezed out from under my eyelid and I brushed it away angrily, found the whisky bottle and took it to sit in front of the boob-tube, watched Die Hard and drank. Watched Under Siege and drank, eventually succumbing to tiredness and the alcohol ... only to wake far too early with a splitting headache and a disgusting mouth.
Secrets. Can love exist alongside secrets?
I got through the rest of the week, knowing my work was way under par but unable to find the motivation to do better. I slept badly and Saturday morning woke before dawn, rose, showered, breakfasted on coffee and toast, packed a rucksack and set off.
My flat was the lower part of a large house overlooking Endcliffe Park in Sheffield. It is possible to walk through the park by the Porter Brook all the way out of the city into Derbyshire, though the name of the park changes as you walk: Bingham Park, Bluebell Wood, Whitely Wood ... At Forge Dam it was still far too early for the café to be open, so I kept going until I emerged onto Fulwood Lane, then along Ringinglow Road to Burbage Bridge, turning off the road onto a path by Burbage Brook.
I hadn't thought out where I was going; without conscious decision I was following a path I'd taken many times. If I had thought it through, I'd probably have headed in the opposite direction! As it was, I followed the path to cross, in due course, the Hathersage Road, continuing to follow the stream down the valley. It was six hours or so and maybe twelve miles from leaving home; I was footsore and hungry. The Station Café beckoned.
Stomach full and bladder emptied, I left the café and made my way back into the woods. Over my meal I'd decided what I was going to do, though unsure if it were a good idea. I picked my way between the trees, working uphill, until I found the place. The place ... where we'd met the first time. Calida! Where was she now?
I leaned against a birch tree, but jerked my hand back. It felt warm... surely not? I reached out again and laid my hand on the silvery bark. Yes ... definitely warm. And ... throbbing? Very faintly? Must be my imagination...
"Well ... do you like my tree?"
I jerked round and staggered a little. "Sorry?" I saw a slight woman with silvery hair. I couldn't have guessed her age; she looked young, but despite a youthful, smooth face, she had an air of age about her. I collected myself a little. "Your tree?"
"Oh, yes, Steve ... I'm very attached to my tree."
"You know my name?"
"Certainly. I've seen you here with Calida."
This was unreal. Had I switched dimensions or something?
"You know Calida? I don't recognise you..."
"No reason you should. Calida and I are old friends, though. You never answered my question."
"Oh, right. Yes, very much. Very pretty. Like yourself."
"Why, thank you sir!" She actually dropped an elegant curtsy.
"Betula! Are you making a nuisance of yourself?" An old man, small, whiskered and somehow gnarled, appeared from somewhere.
"Me, Grandfather? Make a nuisance of myself?"
"Yes, you, Betula."
"I have no objection to chatting to a pretty young woman," I put in, "and I certainly hadn't begun to think of her as a nuisance..."
He nodded. "None-the-less, she's rather flighty and can become irritating."
"Grandfather!" She'd tried to sound angry, but I could hear the humour in her voice. She turned back to me. "He isn't really my Grandfather. We're very distant relatives. But he does care for us all." She paused, then, "I think what he was going to say was, what you're looking for is over there..." she pointed at a graceful, smooth barked, beech-tree.
I followed her gesture then looked back at her with a question in my eyes.
"Have you never hugged a tree?" The old man's voice came from behind him.
"I'm sorry?" I looked round at the old chap.
"Go and hug that tree and tell her how you feel."
"You'll understand when you do," the girl said.
Feeling rather silly, I walked across the leaf-mould and beech-mast, and wrapped my arms round the tree. I didn't see the man and the girl go. The tree felt warm and alive – my arms didn't quite reach round the trunk. Well, of course it was alive. But ... something more than that ... I pressed my body against it, resting my cheek against the smooth bark. For the first time in days I felt at peace; I closed my eyes and drifted.
It was quite a long time later I seemed to hear a voice; "Talk to me."
A fragment of song drifted through my mind; 'I talk to the trees, but they don't listen to me... '
But did that matter? Did it matter if the tree didn't listen? Did it matter if the tree couldn't hear?
"I miss her." I stopped, then continued, short phrases with long breaks between.
"Why did she leave?"
"I thought we fitted together so well."
"I didn't mind that she needed to be away..."
"She was so beautiful..."
"Why could she not tell me where she went?"
There was no reply, but there was a sense of being listened to. I told myself it was imagination. I was so comfortable, though, so conscious of calm, or peace, that I changed my position from a standing hug to sitting with my back leaning against the tree. My eyelids drooped as almost a week of poor sleep caught up on me.
"Are you okay?" A hand shaking my shoulder, the voice penetrating my sleep-befuddled brain.
I shook my head, trying to clear the sleep out of it and looked at my watch. The sun had moved considerably since my arrival. No wonder, it was well past six o'clock.
"What? Oh, okay? Yes, thanks. I was very tired and sat leant against this tree. It was so comfortable I dropped off." He looked up at the older couple who had stopped to check on me. I smiled. "Thanks for your concern."
They smiled back. "As long as you're okay?"
"I'm fine. I'll just let myself wake up a bit more, then I'll be getting off, I expect."
They left and I leaned back against the tree. It was odd how comfortable I felt. I felt for my pack, rummaged for a bottle of water and drank from it deeply. I found a cereal bar in there too and chewed on it, more for something to do than because I really felt hungry.
I was puzzled how reluctant I was to move at all, knowing I needed to get up to catch a bus or train back to the city. I shifted.
"What?" I spoke before realising I hadn't heard anything out loud.
I leaned back against the tree again.
"I'm going mad. Hearing voices, now."
'You are not mad. Tell me about Calida.'
"Okay. The voice in my head is telling me I'm not mad. That does not help. But why would I ask myself about Calida? Calida ... is tall, and slim. Graceful and very lovely. I didn't realise until she left, but ... I love her." I do. I really do. No wonder I feel so lost without her.
'You love Calida?' The voice was wistful.
"I really do."
'Relax and sleep.'
Oblivion took me ... to a place where I was resting in Calida's arms. I stirred briefly, much later, half aware of the sound of rain on leaves and wind in the trees, but I was dry and warm, and didn't try to stay awake.
I woke with the dawn, still leaning against the tree. I could smell wet ground, wet leaves. The stream was loud in its bed but the ground I was lying on was dry. I was dry, warm, rested and at peace.
What a dream. 'I'm warm and dry and I know it rained last night. I should be stiff and sore; I always am when I sleep on the ground. I wasn't even laid flat, but I feel better than when I sleep on my bed at home. Was it a dream?' I got to my feet and turned to the tree. 'I'm going to make a fool of myself, I know it. But at least there's no-one to watch.' I reached out and laid my hands on the smooth bark. "Calida, if you love me, come out and tell me."
I could never tell if she materialised, stepped out from behind the tree, or emerged from the tree, but she was there, smiling, her eyes dark with emotion. "I thought..."
"You thought I wouldn't believe you were a dryad?"
"Hamadryad, but yes. Would you have, if I'd just said it?"
"It would have been easy enough to prove..."
"Not if you didn't want to believe. And we're forbidden to just tell people. We can only talk to people who find out, who guess the secret, who believe, who want to believe. But now, I ... we ... can trust you. Who would believe you? I'm sorry I left, but ... I can't stay away from my tree. If I'm away too long we ... we both die."
We stood for several seconds. An observer – there wasn't one, of course, unless it was another tree-spirit – could not have told which of us moved first. We met halfway and came together in an urgent embrace which said all that either of us needed.
"I need a shower and clean clothes," I said after a while, not releasing my love.
"Can't do a shower. A bath and freshen up those clothes, though, that I can do." She pulled away, took my hand and led me up the valley and towards the stream. There was a place where a small waterfall had eroded a deeper place in the stream, perhaps six feet across and two deep.
"You want me to get in there? It'll be freezing!"
"Trust me, you'll love it." She smoothly lifted the flimsy garment she was wearing over her head and reached for the hem of my sweater; I lifted my arms to allow her to pull it over my head. It was rapidly followed by my t-shirt, shoes, socks, trousers and shorts. She deftly and rapidly shook each garment and laid them neatly in a pile well away from the bank of the stream.
I was surprised that I wasn't shivering in the cool Autumn morning, but found I wasn't at all reluctant to follow her into the water, which wasn't cold at all; pleasantly cool, yes, but not cold, and I immersed myself and found myself revelling in the movement of the water over my skin.
"This is wonderful; it feels just like hands stroking my skin."
"Oh, it does, does it? Phoebe! Are you being naughty again? Show yourself!"
There was a shimmering movement and a girl ... woman? appeared beside me. By her size, she might have been a child, but her naked body amply demonstrated that she was fully adult. Her body, though, instead of being an even colour was shaded in greens, browns and blues, her hair spiky and electric blue.
"Spoil-sport, Calida. You're mean and selfish, keeping him all to yourself."
"Who says I'm keeping him to myself? Betula and Quercus know about him and I'm sure they've spread the word. If you listened to other people, you'd know. If you'd spoken to me I'd have asked you to help him bathe."
"Er ... excuse me, ladies? I think I'm moving rapidly into freak-out territory here."
The little sprite smoothly closed the space between us and undulated her cool body against me. "No ladies here," she whispered in my ear, stretching up to do it, her nipples rubbing on my chest and her hands stroking my sides.
I looked across at Calida, who was smiling at me and shaking her head. I captured the hands that were exploring my torso and backed away. "You're gorgeous, but I'm a one-woman guy."
"Oh," she drawled, "we don't do that here. Share and share alike."
"Phoebe! Back off and let me talk to my boyfriend," Calida snapped. "You know perfectly well the choice is his and it's coming at him cold. He's only found out about us this morning."
The bed of the stream was uneven, slippery round stones and it was hard to keep upright and not lose my footing as she writhed and tried to get close to me again.
"River Daughter!" I recognised the voice from the previous evening – the, as I thought, elderly man I'd spoken to with Betula.
She stopped struggling and stepped back. "Father Quercus..." Her head was down, but I was sure she was looking at him from under her eyebrows.
"We will talk to this young man and help him to understand his choices."
I could feel her reluctance. Surely I was not such a catch? I stepped back cautiously and found myself at the bank of the stream. I turned and clambered out onto the grass and moss, suddenly aware of my nakedness, but somehow unconcerned. When I turned again, the sprite had gone. Calida moved toward me, holding out her hand; I stretched out mine to her and she took it and stepped out of the water beside me. I looked at her, then at the stream, where there was no sign of the naiad. A movement caught my eye; Quercus was climbing the slope, leaving us on our own.
"You may want to dress," Calida told me.
"But..." I stopped, realising that my skin was dry and Calida once more clad in a flimsy, flowing robe. "I didn't see you put that on."
She smiled – it was more of a cheeky grin - "One of my abilities you haven't seen." The robe disappeared, leaving her naked, then she was covered again, with a different robe; the only sign a shimmering as she changed. Dazed, I bent to pick up my clothes, somehow fresh and clean, and began to dress.
Voices from above. "You know," a woman's voice, "I could swear some of these trees move."
"Well, of course. They move every time there's a wind."
"No, I mean they move around. They're not in the same place."
"Creepy. You do have some strange ideas."
The voices faded, clearly moving further up the valley.
"Does ... Quercus ... rule here?"
"Not exactly. He's the eldest. Everyone respects him,"
"Even Phoebe. She is really very young and has just discovered her cunt." The crudity pulled me up short and she giggled at my expression. "She has been having a great time seducing the occasional young man she catches on his own. She has yet to learn she can't just reach out and take what she wants, though we don't have the same rules you humans do."
I was unable to respond coherently to that and we were silent together for a few minutes as we moved together up the bank to the path.
"Are you hungry?" Her voice broke in to my confused thoughts. "The café should be open, or will be soon."
"Yes. Some coffee might help, too."
She squeezed my hand reassuringly as we continued down the hill, out of the wood and across the railway bridge. Just before reaching the café, she stepped in front of me and tilted her face to mine for a kiss. "I love you, Steve," she paused, "but you know we can't be together, don't you? Not properly."
We entered the café and I ordered a large breakfast; Calida settled for fruit juice and toast. "I don't really need this ... you realise that now?"
I nodded and we were silent then until I'd consumed my breakfast and fetched a second mug of coffee.
"You said the rules were different for you..." She nodded, "So ... what are your rules?"
"Not many, really. It's more a matter of courtesy. Phoebe was, well, rude, making a play for you while you were with me, at least without asking me first. It wouldn't upset me if you had sex with every female in the wood; we just don't worry that way, but we have to be careful how we ... relate to humans."
I frowned, trying to assimilate something so foreign to my way of thinking. "You said we can't be together..."
"Not properly. I could come with you for a day or so, but it's uncomfortable, and I can't stay for more than a few days ... a week perhaps. You can come to me and I'll ... accommodate you, like last night. You won't freeze, or get wet unless you want to, but you have your life in the city, and I have mine here." She took my hand and her touch was gentle and loving. "It would make me happy if you found someone human, as long as you kept coming to see me ... She'd have to be someone who could ... understand ... our relationship."
"If it was another man?" I raised an eyebrow.
She smiled. "You aren't that way inclined, are you?"
I returned the smile a little sheepishly, "Not really, no. It was just a hypothetical."
"If you loved him, I could certainly love him too. If it were a woman, that would make some other things easier too."
I looked at her enquiringly, but she shook her head. "Not now."
I drank my coffee, concentrating on the taste to escape the tumult of confusion in my head. When I'd finished she stood, held out her hand to me and led me back into the woods to a little dell off the beaten track, discreet and out of sight. She was warm and lithe in my arms and I was soon too involved to worry about details of our relationship.
I opted to return to the city on the train. I had a lot to think about and needed to get home to get a decent night's sleep before rolling in to work on Monday. It would not be an exaggeration to say Calida, not to mention her friends, had blown my mind. I couldn't make up my mind whether I was happy I'd found her or angry she couldn't be with me. On balance, I decided I was happy that at least I hadn't lost her completely.
That week at work I was on autopilot. Fortunately, I was good enough that my work was satisfactory, but my colleagues certainly noticed my preoccupation; one, in particular. But came Friday, I went straight home just long enough to change my clothes and pick up my backpack before setting off for Padley Gorge, where I made a bee-line for Calida. I didn't pause or hesitate before embracing the tree, but I did sigh with relief and satisfaction when the unyielding bulk of the mature tree became the lissom figure of my beloved.
"You came..." she whispered.
"Could you doubt it?"
She pulled back, but kept her hands on my upper arms, looked in my eyes and said, "Steve, I don't want to lose you, but ... I told you ... we cannot have a conventional relationship. It was more than an even chance that you would decide the cost was too high."
"No cost would be too high."
"Don't say that. Listen to me, Steve. I ... we ... don't fall in love easily, but when we do it is very hard. I ... I don't think I can express to you..." she stopped, frowning. "No. This isn't the time." Her whole demeanour changed and she giggled. "Tonight, we party!"
"Did you think we just ... existed? Tonight, the woods will be alive. We will sing, and dance and make love..." she frowned again and looked at him sternly, "and I do not hold us exclusive. I am going to have fun, and I want you to have fun, too."
"You will sleep in my arms, have no fear. But several of my friends want you and unless you find them repulsive, I want you to make them happy too."
I opened my mouth to speak, but didn't. Instead, I just leaned forward and kissed her. If I was going to have any sort of relationship with her, it would have to be on her terms.
When our lips parted, she smiled. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to do," she said, "but relax and go with the flow."
It wasn't the sort of party I was used to. For one thing, there were no clothes; Calida had warned me and encouraged me to disrobe also. Uncomfortable at first, I gradually forgot my nakedness. It wasn't exactly dark but every ... person ... seemed to exude a sort of luminosity. There was starlight, and a little moonlight. The dancing was ... sort of formal and the music was there, though it was quiet and I couldn't pin down where it was coming from. Only later did I see figures with pipes, some strange stringed instruments, and a hand-held drum of some sort. I found myself winding in and out of other figures, brushing, or briefly holding hands. Rings, or lines, formed and melted away. I wondered from time to time how it worked; there seemed no organisation yet it wasn't chaos. I didn't know the dances, yet seemed to fit and blend in without effort.
A hand took mine and held it, tugged me away from the moving figures. Looking, I saw the silvery figure of Calida's friend, Betula. Her lips were warm and sweet, her body supple in my arms. Small, firm breasts pressed against my torso, and her hands were everywhere. Then we were in a mossy hollow, where she pressed me down. With a mental shrug, 'She said, go with the flow... ' I didn't resist. Her mouth descended onto my semi-erect penis, bringing it almost instantly to full hardness, at which point I lifted her hips so her pussy was over my face. Her scent was strong and sweet and she lifted off me to squeak in surprise as my tongue swiped through her cleft, but as I lapped at her juices, she returned to her ministrations.
I was getting close when she lifted off me, turned to straddle me and lower herself, causing me to gasp as her warm, slippery tightness enclosed me. The brief pause allowed me to draw back from the brink and just enjoy the sensations as she moved, but it wasn't long before she was shivering through her orgasm and I joined her in shared ecstasy. We cuddled together for a while, laid on the soft moss, until she kissed me again. "Calida was right. You are special. I didn't believe what she said you did to her. Thank you, Steve."
"My pleasure," I managed to get out, standing and holding out my hand to her. She took it and smiled as she rose to her feet.
"We'd better get back. There's someone else who wants to get her hands on you before the end."
She wasn't wrong. A tiny, slight, energetic figure with spiky, electric blue hair intercepted me. "You've been avoiding me!"
"No, pretty one. I wouldn't do that." I picked her up – she weighed very little – and held her so our faces were level and kissed her softly. When our lips parted and I looked at her face, her eyes were closed; her lips were slightly parted and her face relaxed. She really was very pretty.
"Do that again..." her voice was soft, with none of the brash demanding of her previous demeanour. "Please?"
I had no objection to that. As that kiss ended, she was purring, soft like a kitten in my arms. Light as she was, my arms were getting tired, so I looked round and found a boulder I could lean against. I held her on my lap and she curled up, very like a kitten, in fact.
"She found you, then?" I turned my head towards Calida's voice, our eyes met and she went on, "What have you done to her?"
I shrugged. "Kissed her, that's all."
"My..." she just looked at us for some time. "Are you hungry? Thirsty?"
"A little ... both."
"I will fetch you something." She left, returning shortly after with a mixture of fruit, leaves and roots on a plate that was like a large leaf, and a cup full of clear liquid, which she set beside me, then she sat beside me. We nibbled at the food and sipped clear, pale wine together. We'd almost finished when Phoebe stirred in my lap.
"I think I understand, now."
"I need to return to the river, though." She snuggled against me a little longer, "May I have another kiss first?"
I wasn't sure if she was asking Calida or myself, but simply said, "Of course," and dipped my face to hers. She was almost limp in my arms and her eyes were closed once more as our lips separated. Then the energy that I had thought was characteristic of the little naiad returned and she sprang out of my lap, pecked a kiss on my forehead, and was gone.
Calida moved close to me and my arm seemed to wrap her to me automatically.
"You made quite an impression on her," she said, "I've never seen her quite like that before."
"She's really sweet when she's not being aggressive," I answered.
"I'll be sure to tell her that," Calida commented; I could hear the smile in her voice. "Are you having fun?"
"I've enjoyed myself a lot," I said, "but this is the best part of the party for me."
"Better than making love with Betula?"
"Much! She's sweet and sexy and pretty, but I'm not in love with her."
Calida pressed close to me. "Would you mind leaving the party?"
"Not as long as I'm leaving with you. Are you ready to leave?"
We walked together, hand in hand. I wondered, as I had from time to time throughout the evening, how it was we didn't trip, or stub our toes, why it was so comfortable walking in bare feet. When we were back in Calida's place, we lay together where the tree should have been and the ground seemed soft beneath us. We lay, face to face, not wanting to stop kissing, our hands smoothly wandering, until without words exchanged, we joined together moving slowly, languorously until much later we climaxed together and slept, hands resting on each other.
I woke with the dawn; Calida still snuggled against me. I brushed her nipple lightly with the palm of my hand and she hummed and wriggled against me. Her eyes opened and she looked at me apparently without comprehension for several seconds.
"Strange..." she murmured.
"I didn't change..."
"I'm in my place, I slept. I should have woken up in tree-form. But this is nice..." She pressed my hand against her breast, then reached for my morning erection. "I could get used to this."
She stroked me silently as I caressed her breast, then, "Not literally, you know that. But I wish I could." She moved smoothly over me and lowered herself on me with a sigh. Neither of us felt any urgency and as she moved on me, she caressed my chest. Nothing loth, I stroked her hips and side, eventually settling on her breasts. I flicked her nipples with my thumbs and she shivered and came hard. As her tremors died away, I rolled her over and began to thrust into her harder. She shivered out another orgasm as I came into her and we lay together still joined until I softened and fell out of her. If I'd been in any state to think about it, I'd have wondered how long it took me to soften. "Are you ready for your morning ablutions?" she murmured in my ear.
I thought about Phoebe. "I suppose so..."
This time, I wasn't surprised how pleasant the water felt, cool on my heated skin.
"Erm..." Phoebe's voice was curiously muted. When I looked at her, she was standing in the water behind me, but her head was lowered and she was looking ... demure? Could he apply such a word to her? Yet it was the nearest thing that fitted. "Calida? Steve?"
"Hello, Phoebe." Calida's voice and smile were warm.
I held out my arms to her. She looked surprised, but stepped forward into my embrace. "I thought..." I held her gently; her head was against my heart and she listened to the steady thump. She looked up at me. "Why didn't you make love to me last night?"
"You seemed to like the kiss."
"Oh, I did..."
"You seemed happy in my arms..."
"Oh, I was."
"That was making love." I looked at Calida who smiled and nodded, then came to me, and kissed my ear.
"You know where to find me," she said, and left us together.
"But..." she sounded puzzled, "aren't I pretty enough? Didn't you want me?"
"Little one ... you're very pretty. Being pretty isn't what makes someone want you. I thought that just holding you like that was enough, last night. I really enjoyed having you sitting in my lap like that. You seemed happy too..."
"Why don't we get out of the water and sit on the bank?" She nodded and let me lead her out of the water. I laid myself down on the mossy, leafy surface and held out my arms; she lay beside me, resting her head on my shoulder. "A few weeks ago, Phoebe, because I was in love with Calida, I'd have felt really guilty about making love to you, even kissing you the way I did last night, because that's how I was. Now, knowing Calida doesn't mind, that you all see things differently, I'd love to make love with you."
She took a deep breath preparatory to a further protest before what I'd said worked its way into her consciousness, let it out when it did and then she was kissing me – hard.
"Hey! Gently does it!" I managed to speak when she broke to breathe. She looked crestfallen. "It's okay," I went on, "let's just take our time." I ran my fingers through the spiky hair; it felt odd – springy – and kissed her softly, cupping her breast. She hummed into my mouth. Exploring further, I found her pussy to be wet – very wet – and she gasped as I touched her. I was a little torn, but couldn't resist tasting her. She was sweet; fresh and clean, with a hint of something; hazel nut, perhaps. She must have been on a hair trigger, because she was convulsing in a major orgasm seconds after my tongue flicked her clit. There didn't seem much point in waiting further, and I buried myself deep inside her.
I never did come in her; consecutive, building, orgasms had her unconscious long before I was near. I withdrew and held her in my arms until she came back. When she woke, she looked in my eyes, a little dazed.
Her hand went between her legs and transferred a little liquid to her mouth. "You didn't come in me."
"You fainted," I smiled, "it would have been bad manners. But I can start again if you like?"
She pressed against me, the pressure of her breasts against me very pleasant; I felt the warmth of her breath in the hairs on my chest. Her hands wandered over my body. "Can I ... will you come to me again before you go home?"
"Of course, if you want me to."
"Then ... I'd like to rest now. I'd like you to come back to me. Please."
I kissed her once more and stood; held out my hand to her. She took it, pulled herself upright, stepped into the stream and was gone.
I made my way, slowly, back to Calida.
"Something I don't understand..." I was working my way through an enormous platter of bacon, eggs, sausage, beans and fried bread.
"Only one thing?" Calida smiled at me over the rim of the glass of juice.
I smiled back. "Lots of things, of course. But when I met Betula, she was there, and I was touching her birch. But last night, you were there and your tree wasn't..."
"That's because ... well. Betula is a Dryad. She lives with a tree; they support each other. I am a Hamadryad. I am the tree."
I was silent, eating my breakfast, assimilating the idea.
"So, couldn't you move?"
"Certainly. But I am always drawn back to the place where I was planted. Place is important to us. I would only move to avoid being cut down."
The idea Calida could be killed, cut down for whatever reason, chilled me.
"We live a long time," she smiled. "Betula could survive her birch being cut down as long as there was a related sapling not too far away. But I am my tree. Phoebe could go where-ever the stream goes, but if she went too far she could get lost. I mean, where her stream joined a big river, say, she might not be able to hold herself together. She would cease to be."
"I don't like to think about that. Any of it."
"No. But death isn't the end, you know, just a transition. A painful one, a difficult one, but a transition." She paused, looking at me, head cocked. "How old do you think I am?"
"If you were human, I'd say ... twenty-five? Thirty? But I guess you're older than that."
"Just a little. I can remember the workmen cutting mill-stones and talking about Napoleon's death."
I felt as though I was standing on the edge of a precipice looking down; I was dizzy. Two hundred years. More.
"I will live hundreds of years more. Longer than a normal beech tree. Unless..." She fell silent, pensive.
I opened my mouth to speak, then shut it as I decided I didn't want to press her any further.
I bought sandwiches and we walked the moors. Perhaps 'strolled' might be a better adjective, or even 'ambled'. We were in no hurry, just being together. It was immensely satisfying.
It was drawing on to dusk as we crossed the stream. Despite the chuckling of the water there was no mistaking the sounds from behind the rocky outcrop. Calida and I looked at each other and, wordlessly, Calida strolled over to glance round the corner, returning with a smile.
"I've got you all to myself this evening. It seems Phoebe has found someone else to occupy herself with."
"Are you sure you didn't mind that I..."
She silence me with a finger on my lips. "I told you. I don't own you. I think you may have moderated Phoebe's ... enthusiastic nature. We'll see."
I never did understand how she did it, but we ate a sort of salad in the gloom of the evening, without the luminosity of the previous night's party. Then lay together, made love, and slept; deeply content.
Sunday passed in much the same way as Saturday. At the stream, Phoebe did not attempt further intimacy with me, though she was friendly and cheerful.
As dusk approached, Calida led me to the station and kissed me as the train drew in. The weekend was over.
Much the same pattern occurred over the next few weeks, with me coping with my work week and immediately setting off into Derbyshire early Friday evening. I had intimate encounters with several residents of the wood including Phoebe and Betula, but managed to spend the bulk of my time, and my nights, with Calida. Late in October, though, I was intercepted as I left work one evening by one of my female colleagues, Deborah Houghton.
"Hey, Debs. You okay?"
"Spare time for a coffee?"
I hesitated, but Deborah – Debbie or Debs to everyone in the office – was an unthreatening girl, the sort everyone liked and turned to if they needed help or a listening ear. Not unattractive, she seemed not to care much about appearance; never used cosmetics, kept her hair in an unflattering, easy to manage, short cut and wore plain, loose clothes that while tidy enough did nothing for her figure and concealed her limbs. There was an appeal in her soft, brown eyes, too, that made me think of my mother's spaniel.
"Oh ... okay. I guess so." After a moment's thought, I added, "Sorry ... that wasn't very gracious, was it? Yes. Coffee would be good. Where would you like to go? Starbucks?"
"Somewhere a bit quieter, if you don't mind. Twenty-two?"
Twenty-two was a small coffee-shop opposite the Catholic Cathedral in Norfolk Row.
I shrugged, "Sounds good to me."
We walked the short distance in a companionable silence. It was something that made me think. Without exception the other girls ... ladies ... on the staff would have chattered continuously the entire way. Once in place with our beverages, Debbie didn't begin to talk, but sipped at her herbal tea with her head down.
"Er, Debs, not that I mind a cup of coffee in your company, but did you want to talk about something?"
She looked up and met my eyes steadily. "I was trying to think how to say what I want to say, as it's rather ... intrusive."
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. "Probably best to either say nothing or just spit it out, then."
"Okay, then. What happened to Calida?"
That was rather unexpected and also difficult.
"I mean," she went on, "you seemed happy and you'd rush off; sometimes she'd come to the office to meet you for lunch ... then you were really down for a few days. But then you changed. You weren't down, but you were ... quiet. Pensive. Preoccupied. And you only rushed off on Fridays after work."
I chewed this over in my head. Something made me want to unburden myself to this girl. "I ... don't know what to say." I thought hard for several minutes. "Okay. This will sound strange, but bear with me, if you will. Do you know anything about paganism?"
She shook her head. "Only that it seems to have a reputation for being bad."
"That's more about religious prejudice than anything else. It's the idea that there are spirits in everything. I'm probably wrong about a lot of it, but ... suppose there were spirits in, say, trees ... and running water. Even flowers. How would you feel about it?"
She was wide-eyed. "I've never thought about it. I'd be worried about doing almost anything. Couldn't cut a tree down; even carrots? I mean, what would we eat?"
I laughed, not unkindly. "That's something I hadn't really thought about, but I can see your point." I looked at her, thinking that, actually, she was rather pretty and that I liked her kindness. "Are you doing anything tonight?"
That did surprise her. "Why ... no. Not anything, actually."
"I'd like to take you out to dinner, but I don't have a car. Would you mind driving?"
Her jaw dropped. "I, er ... well..." she shrugged and smiled. "Why not? Where do you want to go?"
"The Maynard Arms. It's a pub out at Grindleford; good food. And there's someone nearby I'd like you to meet."
"You're being very mysterious..."
"I know, but all will be made clear."
She picked me up from my home in her scruffy Polo and we drove together out into Derbyshire. Had a good meal with a bottle of wine – she refused to have more than one glass as she expected to be driving home – then we left the pub and I guided her across the road and down into the woods.
"I thought we were going to see someone..."
"We are. Not far now."
The luminosity was there again, though not as intense as at the party so we had no difficulty picking our way along the uneven path. At some point our hands came together.
"My heart is pounding. What are you doing to me?" I could barely hear her speak.
She watched as we approached the mature and lovely beech-tree. I reached out and laid the palm of my hand on the bark.
"Calida, I've brought a friend to meet you."