I can't tell you what woke me; perhaps a stair creaked, though I doubt it. I slipped out of bed and stepped to the window, drawing the curtain back a little to peep through. Sure enough, a tiny figure in a long white nightie was padding across Rustlings Road towards the park. I couldn't see for certain, but I was fairly sure she would be barefoot, too.
"Worrizit?" mumbled my wife from the bed.
"Calida's going walkabout again," I said.
She grunted in acknowledgement.
You may think we're odd parents to not be in a panic seeing their three-year-old daughter heading off into a city park in the small hours of the morning ... and you'd be right. We had good reason not to be surprised at our daughter's behaviour and good reason not to be desperately worried; you'll understand better if you read how we came to be where and how we are in 'The Trees Are Alive'.
But to say I wasn't desperately worried is not to say I was going to leave her on her own and I was climbing into my outdoor clothes even as I was speaking to my wife. I didn't bother with socks, just trotted downstairs and pulled on trainers. The front door was ajar. Calida either didn't bother to close it or thought doing so would disturb us. You see, although she was physically three years old and from Debbie's loins, the product of our love, she was in some way rather more than human. Oh, read my account; this is a new story! I'm not going to explain all over again how Calida the Hamadryad, with whom I was in love, was reborn as Calida the baby, from the womb of Debbie my wife, with whom I was also in love. Anyway, she was walking at nine months, her crawling period consisting of getting to the nearest furniture item she could use to pull herself to her feet. We never heard any baby noises ... when she began to talk, she did so in coherent sentences, not that she talked a lot. When she got to Nursery School in September, she was going to be a surprise to the staff there. In the meantime, we couldn't keep her away from trees.
She was both adult and child and loved to curl up in my lap like any child.
Living opposite the park, with many mature trees was both a blessing and a curse, as frequently Calida would take off, escaping our vigilance, to commune with the trees. She was happy also to come with us when we visited the place we'd made love. She loved and was loved by the residents of the wood, dryads, hamadryads and naiads alike and spent hours talking to them, especially Quercus and Betula. When she wanted to play in the stream we had no compunction about leaving her in Phoebe's care. Which latter might have been strange, but somehow we trusted the little sprite, usually mischievous and irresponsible, to take care of her.
I followed her, though by now she was out of sight, to the park entrance, along the path towards the café, but took an acute turn to cross the bridge over the brook. The white night-gown lay in the middle of the path, I smiled and shook my head as I picked it up, wondering how many three-year-old girls wore a nightie rather than pyjamas. It was a compromise; Calida much preferred nudity to clothes and flatly refused to wear trousers in any form, so pyjamas had no chance.
I should not have been able to see her under the trees in the dark, but as once before there was a glow about her and some of the trees, which were changing, transforming into apparently human figures and moving. I heard music, but could see no players, and the movement became dance, the small naked figure a part of it all.
Tired then, but somehow not sleepy, I sat and leaned against a tree where I had a mostly clear view of the rise where the party was going on. It was very comfortable and I relaxed until a voice spoke in my ear.
"We won't let her come to any harm, you know. She is a cousin, after all." The tree was no longer a tree, but a pretty, young-looking woman. I immediately took my weight off her, but she wrapped an arm round me and pulled me back. "You won't strain me. Relax."
"What's your name?" I enquired.
"Call me Quercia," she said, and I laughed. If you don't see the joke, pronounce the name with a hard 'c' – got it?
"Are you?" I turned to look at her better, pulling away, not without difficulty as she was quite strong. I saw a sturdy woman, looking young, yes, but I knew better than to take that at face value.
"What, Quirky?" She giggled, "It's ... well, don't you think you'd have to be to live like this?" She waved a hand, indicating herself and the surrounding area. "I think you met my Great-Uncle," she said, "so we know about Calida ... and you."
"Is that your proper name?"
"Yes and no. It's part of my proper name, but it's really a family name, you see. I won't tell you my personal name, if you don't mind. There's power in one's personal name, you see. But if you prefer, you could call me Kia."
"Okay, Kia; that's fine. But don't you want to join in the fun?"
"I'd rather have fun with you. I've heard things that make me very curious about you."
"Yes, Betula was very complimentary. I think she exaggerated, but I'm certainly willing to try you out."
It was very tempting. "Don't be offended, Kia, but I'd need to talk to my wife before taking up your offer. You understand she might be upset and I'd hate that."
She made a moue. "Yeah ... Betula said you'd probably say something like that. But I'd like to stay here with you. Do you mind?"
"The company of a lovely young woman? Why would I mind?"
She chuckled; it sounded very like a stream pouring over a rocky stream bed in the hills. "Yes, she said you were a great one for compliments and very charming."
I watched Calida dancing, one of those dances where the girl is passed from one partner to the next at arm's length, making patterns like ... do you remember Spirograph? That weird arty toy made up of pierced plastic cogs and you used a pencil or pen to make twirling patterns? No? Shows my age I suppose. The figures were twirling faster and faster until, suddenly, everything stopped and they all scattered. I stood.
"Come back any time and talk to me. Bring Calida – she will understand. Bring Debbie, too."
On impulse I kissed her lightly on the lips before turning away to walk to Calida who was walking down the slope.
She saw me. "Daddy! Why are you here?"
"Because, Sweetiepie, I know you're not just any three-year-old, but you are my daughter and you are in a three-year-old body, so I can't let you wander around. If Social Services or the NSPCC heard about it, they might take you away, and I'd hate that."
She snorted – a grown-up, adult, contemptuous snort. "They could try."
"They could and ... maybe you have ways to stop them, but it would make trouble and draw attention to you." I handed her the nightie and without protest for once, she put it on and lifted her arms up in an unmistakable, non-verbal, childish appeal to be picked up and carried. It was a moment very characteristic of her; one moment the confident adult, the next a small child. She was light in my arms and she clung to my neck as I carried her back home. She was asleep before we left the park.
She was in Nursery School the next day. I had to go to work; Debbie would be in the office for a couple of hours in the afternoon while Calida entertained the staff at the local nursery school. I mean that; Calida rarely needed to be entertained, but adults found her fascinating. Anyway, Debbie and I had no chance to talk privately until little Miss Calida faded out shortly after tea. Then I had my chance.
"We need to talk," I said, softening it with a smile.
Debbie had a serious self-esteem problem. It had been eased when I demonstrated conclusively that she was desirable and the lesson was reinforced when I asked her to marry me, but despite her relationship with Calida – the pre-rebirth Calida, that is – she still had difficulty accepting the reality of her beauty. Of course, some of that beauty was 'inner', perhaps she didn't have traffic-stopping looks, but I saw the whole person and no-one in this world could compare to her in my eyes.
I told her about the previous night – all about the previous night.
"We need to take Calida to see Quercus again and have him, and perhaps some of the others, too, have a word with her. There are all sorts of problems that could arise if she is seen as 'strange' or too precocious."
Debbie nodded, very seriously. "We could do that this weekend, couldn't we? Perhaps we could stay the night, too. Calida would like that, I think." Her expression held something more; anxiety, perhaps. "Steve, did you want to make love to ... what did you say her name was?"
"She said I could call her Kia – short for Quercia."
She nodded thoughtfully. "Does that make her an Oak Hamadryad?"
"It does," I said, "at least, I think so. She's sort of sturdy and solid, like an oak tree. Pretty, though. And yes, I would have liked to tup her."
Debbie frowned. "Why didn't you?"
"I haven't been with any other woman ... or sprite ... or whatever ... since the night we made Calida. I haven't needed to, because you fulfil me and I don't need anyone else."
"But you said..."
"A very attractive ... person ... invited me to take pleasure with her. I think Calida – adult Calida, that is – explained something to you about relationships in the wood, but you know, none of them could or would take me from you, it would cost too much. Look what happened to Calida. I won't accept any offers unless you give permission. Willing, unequivocal permission."
.... There is more of this story ...