Episode Seven

#Episode 7: Midsummer Dreams
Hrothgar and Beth (August 1991)

Hawthorne, in general, signifies the strengthening of the heart in the face of adversity. The flowers may symbolize the interrelationship of hopes and dreams, if two colors are used. The berries indicate a need to deal with unpleasant truths. Clippings were thought to bless marriages by the ancient Greeks. The Irish and Scots held that the May Bush denoted an entrance to faerieland. Bind arrangements with rags of yellow to demonstrate a need for healing or protection.

          Beth had no choice but to let Gar wind down before she could speak. His words were going a mile a minute, and there was no pause—even for breath! Eventually, though, Hrothgar took a moment.  Beth asked, delicately, “You expect me to believe there’s some sort of faun or satyr or whatever just lounging around right next to us that only you can see?”
          “I…I know how it sounds! You don’t think I know? But he’s real! I haven’t just seen him, we’ve done stuff together!
          “You’d think that even if he wasn’t, if you were hallucinating or something.”
           Gar visibly reined himself in and in a quieter voice acknowledged, “I know.”
           “And you said I’m the first person other than you he’s approached?” Beth pressed.
          “Well, to be fair, I’ve never really seen him out of the preserve,” Gar admitted, “and I’m mostly here by myself, so…”
          “So even that isn’t necessarily true,” Beth sighed as she nodded her head. She felt bad. Gar was clearly crushed she didn’t believe him out of hand. He almost looked ready to cry, but how could she believe? His entire story was ridiculous, like something out of one of her little brother’s bedtime stories.
          “I can prove to you he’s real!” Hrothgar proclaimed, a pained smile on his face.
          “Oh?”
          “Yep! Just let me finish my story first,” the younger boy wheedled.
          Beth knew that if Gar were as disturbed as she feared he was, he needed help and she needed to leave. She shouldn’t have even stayed this long. Nevertheless, there was something about the way he described everything, that odd enthusiasm…Gar might be mentally ill, but if he was anything, he was an adept storyteller. She found that she wanted to know what happened next, even if it was a fiction.
          Gar whipped out the string cheese and handed her one still sealed in plastic. She pulled the cheese apart slowly as she allowed the strange boy to continue his tale.

Hrothgar (Late July, 1991)

          The next month and change sped by in a blur. Though Gar’s parents were initially thrilled at how much more outgoing he was, they also crafted a seemingly endless list of chores to complete by summer’s end—and they updated it daily. That made it that much harder to abscond to the woods. Most days he was still able to break free, though not for as much time as he would’ve liked.
          On this particular day, after a full morning and afternoon of social interaction, he was thrilled to get to the preserve. Hanging with Seth and his family was great, and Ryan was still the brother he never had. Keeping his two worlds separate was getting harder, he realized. It only took a matter of moments before he felt that familiar tap on his shoulder and looked up to see his strange friend hanging upside down on a branch above him, wielding a pointed smile as he shook in his mirth. The small horns on the creature’s head almost grazed Gar’s disheveled hair as he swung back and forth, knees wrapped around the tree limb. One of the passes by him was stronger than the others, and before Gar knew it, the blue man was in the air and then landed in a spectacularly casual dismount on the forest floor.
          The blue creature approached him and extended his hand in the almost formal gesture that began each of their adventures together. Gar reached out his hand in kind and shook hands, even as the rainbow nimbus around the figure seemed to creep from his hand onto Gar’s and slither up his own arm. He shivered as all the hair on both his arms and even his eyebrows seemed to stand up and twitch. His blue friend gave a small smirk at the body-length tremble Gar did his best to hide. Looking down at his hand, that same vibrant miasma of color that had soaked the form of his friend now traveled across his skin like heat lightning.
          At that point, Hrothgar heard, in a voice easily deeper than his father’s and thick with an accent he couldn’t make out very clearly, “Kaithias”. The creature’s mouth did not move. The creature pointed at its own chest, slowly, and Gar heard the word repeated again in the same voice. Looking around, Gar couldn’t see anyone with them in the small clearing where they had met.
          “How?” Hrothgar began, before the creature shushed him by pointing quite firmly at its own chest—and then pointed, equally as firmly, at Gar’’s chest and raised a bushy, blue brow as if asking a question. The force of the gentle push actually shoved Hrothgar back a step.
          Bewildered, Gar took a second and tried to process what was happening here. Unless he was missing something entirely, his blue friend was trying to communicate with him. He wasn’t certain how, since he was sure the creature hadn’t opened his mouth to speak at all. It had seemed to just sort of show up in his head like a half-recalled memory rushing to full recall. If so, he wished it came with a dictionary. Gar had no idea what that strange, foreign sounding word might mean and what the appropriate response would be. Kaithias probably was the man-beast’s name, or meant, “Hello, how are you?” or “I like your shorts today, can I eat them?” or something like it in beast-man language. The ridiculousness of that thought forced him into yet another awkward smile. He didn’t want to offend his little blue friend, so he did the only thing that came to mind. ‘Hrothgar,’ Gar said solemnly, bringing his left pointer finger firmly to the center of his chest. He repeated the gesture again, as his friend had done, watching him for some sort of understanding.
          Kaithias—Gar was going with his first assumption that the strange word in his head was his name—nodded, grabbed Hrothgar’s hand in his own and then they were off. He appreciated his friend’s enthusiasm, but Gar wasn’t as nimble as his new strange friend was. He watched bemused as the hoofed figure swung from wild grapevines and scampered through thickets, as if daring him to follow suit. He followed when he could, and the beast man always rewarded him with something when he did. Oftentimes it was a small patch of wildflowers he’d never seen before, hidden under the draped leaves of bushes and saplings. The creature would rest on its haunches as Gar would break out his books and identify the newfound species and read aloud what his ancestors had written about their discovery. Kaithias, it seemed, was polite enough to wait until Gar had everything packed away once again before dragging him ever deeper in the wood.
          Occasionally, however, it would be something altogether different. Two days earlier Kaithias had Gar tiptoe up to a small bush by the stream. Lifting several of the branches, he’d revealed a sleeping family of ducks, a gaggle of the tiniest of babies pressed up tight against each other as they slumbered, their newborn feathers so small they looked more like they wore fur. Both man and beast had stared with wide eyes at the ridiculous cuteness. Every day was a new discovery, as Kaithias lead Gar deeper into the wood and farther afield from the trails that crisscrossed its entrance.
          Today they had been lucky enough to spot a family of beavers building a dam. He’d watched Kaithias climb a nearby tree, snap off some dead, low hanging branches, and throw them down onto the moss below. When Kaithias was done, he had spent some times using his claws and teeth to break and shape the branches and then left them nearby the riverbank. It didn’t take long for the beavers to find the treasure trove of sticks. Gar rolled in the grass laughing at the happy dance Kaithias did for almost a half hour as they watched the chubby, flat-tailed animals anxiously grab as many sticks as they could in a trip and haul them back to their new home and return back for more.
          Twilight fell quickly, sadly, and he had to get home. Rushing through the green, Hrothgar uncovered his bike from its normal hiding place and headed home for dinner. These days, family meals were a strained affair. His parents always wanted a cataloged list of all his daily accomplishments—who he was with, what they had done. This particular day both his parents had gotten home late, so he found some green peppers and a cutting board waiting for him. His parents caught up with each other as his mom sautéed the chicken and his father attacked the onions.
          Once they sat at the table, the inquisition began.
          “So what did you get up to today?”
          “Not much, hung out with Seth for a bit. His mom drove us to the music store and we had lunch at Roman Gnome. We almost went to Beefeater, but you’d said we were having taco salad for dinner and I didn’t really feel like vegetarian. Seth and I split one of the Meatball subs and his mom got the Hot Greek Salad.”
          “I haven’t been to the Gnome in ages,” his mom said as she wiped her mouth free of the salsa that had dangled in its corner. “That was nice of her, to drive all the way into the city.”
          “Sheila spoils you two, I swear. The Gnome for lunch,” his father snorted, “Next you’ll want to fly to Paris for dessert!”
          “I already booked my flight,” Gar smarmed. “I was getting worried I was going to miss dinner since you guys were late. Very impolite.”
          “Oh, well,” his mom sighed despondently, “Bring me back some crème brulee. “
          “Dunno if they’ll let me,” Hrothgar chewed in answer, his mouth full of food, “Customs and all.” He shrugged his shoulders.
          “Damned smart mouthed youngsters these days,” his father castigated.
          “Anyhow,” Gar continued between mouthfuls, “Then I came home, did the dishes, weeded the vegetable patch out back, took a shower and went for a bike ride with Ryan.”
          “How is Ryan? We haven’t seen him around all that much.”
          “He’s good, Dad. Busy. I think he’s trying to start a band or something with the other guys. They’re not very good,” Hrothgar grimaced. That was true, but it upset him how easily the lies came to his lips now. He hardly had to even think to evade the questioning, answering on a kind of deceitful autopilot.
          “Maybe they’ll play at the school carnival!” his mom joked. She had to be joking.
          “What carnival?” The information caught Hrothgar unawares.
          “Ah, I got a call from the PTO tonight about it. Apparently they’ve got one of those traveling carnivals coming to the parking lot by the running track.” His mom shook her head in wonderment as she continued, “I guess Sheryl managed to agree on an entry fee that’ll be a fundraiser.
           “Oh, that’s cool I guess,” Gar shrugged.
           “I’m sure you’ll have a great time, Gar,” his dad looked at him above his perennially slipping glasses—long, slippery noses were yet another awesome family trait he’d inherited from his dad.
           “Not if Ryan’s band is playing,” Gar declared while pantomiming a wicked grin that wasn’t entirely feigned. “We’ll all be running for the hills!”
           “They can’t be that bad…,” his dad mumbled around a mouthful of taco salad as he shook his head.
           Rather than argue, Gar just stuffed a heaping mound of food into his own mouth and let that be an answer. The rest of dinner was uninteresting, the normal clatter of dishes into the dishwasher and the turning on of the television by his dad as his mom grabbed her latest book. Hrothgar himself went online, searching for clues to the strangely named creature he’d grown so close towards with no success.

           Later that night, tucked safely in his bed, Hrothgar dreamt he was back in the preserve not far from where the beavers had built their home. Kaithias was there, and put his blue furry finger to his friend’s lips when he saw Gar and held out his hand. Taking it, they made their way through Finn’’s Wood, bypassing many of the areas Gar was familiar with and taking instead strange trails filled with pale flowers that gleamed under the light of the moon. The forest itself seemed to grow darker the longer they walked—the underbrush impassable except for the path before and behind them, the trees taller and taller with each step. Gradually the dull glow of the moon and the pinpricks that were the stars faded to a uniform, dim twilight. The boy and the man-beast fled through the night at a steady fast pace, the bushes and trees around them dark shadows that might’ve been menacing if their speed hadn’t rendered them as anything other than indistinct blurs.
          The weaving path went on forever before it started to get lighter again. Abruptly, noonday sun trickled through the tops of trees the size of skyscrapers, and birds and dragonflies floated effortlessly between branches and giant clusters of flowers in an ever-present hum of activity. The ground rolled in drumlins and gentle dales, the ground covered in a mix of herbs, wild mint, and hyssop. A soft breeze carried with it the scent of a nearby field bespeckled with lavender and nearby apple blossoms.
          As they continued through this grassland, skirting a few boggy swales that were home to frogs and sunbathing turtles, the landscape began to change once again. The isolated small copses of apple and citrus trees grew closer together and the trees themselves grew taller, with the abundant fruit-bearing trees giving way to mountainous ancient oak and ash, poplar and white birch. The further they traveled, the thicker and taller the trees became. The ground was covered in those same white flowers, vibrant against the soft fuzzy leaves they rested upon.
          Eventually, inevitably, they stopped. Around them, enormous trunks played trellis to vines of morning glory and moonflower braided thickly as they crawled along the surface of the impressive girth. Hibiscus and redbud trees stood as tall and thick as oaks here, the former in full bloom of orange and butter yellow. Flowers draped the forms of gnarled lilacs the size of skyscrapers in every possible hue and linden trees the size of redwoods released their sweet aroma in the still air. On the ground below, Forget-me-nots bunched in mounds at the base of ancient trees, and the air was thick with not just the scent of the linden flowers and lilac, but of jasmine growing in bushes and herbs crushed underfoot as they slowly approached their destination.
          Rose bushes and briars with exaggerated thorns sprung up in florets from the flower littered ground. Torenia crept through the greenery and Columbine clustered where the sun broke through the canopy high above. Several brown bears stood lazily by some trees near slumber, occasionally remembering to gently bat at a nearby hive rich with honey. A small easy flowing stream gave home to the splashing tomfoolery of a family of river otters as a wolf and its cub looked on bemused. Above, a raccoon perched on an oak branch and tried to pick through the bark for a dinner of ants and aphids. Amid the poplar puffs and bumblebees drifting on a slight breeze, hummingbirds danced from flower to flower on both the trees and the forest floor, glorying in their feast.
          Passing a large weeping willow, more beast-men greeted them. None of them looked quite like Hrothgar’s blue friend; each had their own color, an absence of horns or a different type. Some had legs more reminiscent of goats, like Kaithias, while others looked more like that of horses or even antelope. They danced together, in rings and small groups, many sloshing cups of a blood-orange colored punch over their multi-colored fur as they giggled. Cups appeared in their hands, as did a cool clear glass pitcher filled with the same amazing concoction. Gar took a cautious sip and his eyes opened wide in surprise. The cool liquid was thicker than he had expected and tasted of so many fruits, berries, and spices that Gar couldn’t discern a single ingredient, except deliciousness.
          A new dance began, and many of the creatures began to play a variety of handheld and shoulder-slung drums to create a complex rhythm for their hooved feet. Several others joined in with what looked like were small piccolos and reed pipes, as well as small, hand-held harps. More of Kaithias’ kindred gathered as the music grew raucous, beast-men of all sizes, as big as a normal tree and as small as a blade of grass danced to a rhythm Gar felt alongside his heartbeat. Soon the glade was thick with life, with too many creatures in too many sizes weaving too quickly for Gar to process.
          The air was thick, syrupy with herbs, spices, and flowers. Senses dulled, everything felt slow and sloshing like the punch in his hand. The multicolored lights that accompanied one of his fits seemed to flow from everywhere and nowhere, the brightness adding to Gar’s disorientation. He felt like he should hiccup, or pop his ears. Instead, he squinted and took another swill from his cup. The elixir may have been going to Hrothgar’s head—because the dull roar between his ears hinted either he’d already drunk too much or…
          Above the pounding, hypnotic rhythm of the drums and the soaring melodies that accompanied them, a cacophony of male voices greeted Gar, all with thick accents speaking a language he’d never heard before. It sounded very much like Kaithias’ voice, the few times he’d heard it in his mind. Adrift in a sea of dancing animals and monsters, head throbbing with the potency of the thick, flower-filled punch, Hrothgar felt the scene before him start to spin. As he started to fall, Kaithias caught him in his blue furry arms and whisked him into one of the circle dances, encouraging him with a tug or a small kick when he stumbled. He didn’t want to dance; he wanted to…what did he want to do? A bumblebee floated in front of his face, hovering between his eyes as if it was checking its reflection in Gar’s glasses. The bee’s wings were moving so slowly, each beat sounded like a distant thunderclap. Then Kaithias shook him loose from his fascination and linking arms at the elbow, brought the dance home.
          As partners separated and the vale cleared, the denizens lounged on all sides except towards the East. There sat a beast-man taller than all the rest. A Deep dark blue-purple, he had a rack of many-tined antlers instead of horns. The beast-man sat on a throne of white oak and bone; long white hair drizzled from the end of his muzzle, as if it were stringy pale spaghetti. His amber eyes captivated Gar completely. An apple tree bore green, unripe fruit to the left of his throne and a cluster of tall bamboo grew to his right. Gar, still propped up by his friend, approached the towering figure with uneasy steps. Several feet away, Kaithias bowed from the waist and nudged Gar to do the same. As usual, the beast-man underestimated his strength when dealing with his human companion, and Gar fell sprawling at the feet of the seated creature.
          “Apologies,” a new voice boomed into Gar’s already tender head. His head swam as he looked from side to side, trying to clear his head and determine the source.
          “My nephew is clumsy in his exuberance. Are you injured?” The words weren’t quite words, but more like the idea of words. Like a memory of what words meant, but also not.
          Gar was going to be sick.
          Gar was going to be very sick.
          “No, I’m…ok. I’m alright,” Hrothgar huffed. He was swallowing too much, or not enough. His saliva had turned sour.
          “Has he brought you here unwilling?” asked the voice that sent his teeth to rattling.
          “Well, Kaithias never precisely told me…” and now came the belching. “But I would’ve come.”
          “Kaithias,” said the figure seated before him, his rumination like the rumble of thunder. “That is the name he gave you?”
          “Yeah. I…at least I think so.” Squinting due to the disorientation, his head felt entirely too small. “I’m Hrothgar. Hrothgar Jones, though you can call me Gar.”
          “Sir,” Gar quickly added. “Your Majesty.”
          Bells tinkled, strung from the points of the seated one’s antlers as it spoke, “Much like you, Kaithias is young for one of our kind, one of our youngest. Yet he has somehow managed to bond with a human for the first time in recent memory. And our memory is long.”
          The assembled crowd whispered together at this comment, though it sounded to Gar more like someone speaking Italian while drowning but also grunting and whimpering and clicking their tongues. Gar fell to his knees as his head swam, the whole world painted in rainbows.
          “Did you enjoin this bond with my kinsman out of your own design or desire?”
          “Yes,” Gar responded quickly, gasping. He could feel the punch make its way back up into his throat. He did not want his first impression on beast-man royalty to be a footbath of his puke. He groaned. Do not think of puke. Puking.
          “If that is the case, then Gar is under Kaithias’ protection and no other present may poach interest or favor.”
          Kaithias did a brief rendition of one of his happy jigs, not unlike his actions earlier with the beavers.
          “May I ask a question?” Gar pushed out in a rough staccato.
          “If there is breath yet in your lungs, you may ask,” nodded the seated figure, as its eyes seemed to blaze in the dappled shadows.
          “Where are we?” Hrothgar strained to ask, doing his best to try to bring the world into focus.
          “You are in the land beyond the Veil”, Kaithias’ uncle pronounced, as if it was the most obvious thing ever.
          “What is your name?” Gar tried to get up off his knees and found he could not.
          “That, you will learn, is a dangerous question in these lands.” The welcoming amber eyes darkened at the thought. “Perhaps reconsider.”
          “What are you?” Gar continued, though the gathering of beast men and forest creatures all seemed to laugh at the question.
          In contrast, only a cryptic smile from the seated figure rejoined his query. “We are Mystery.”
          “How am I here?” Gar moaned as the voice echoed from one side of his head to the other. He could feel the punch at the back of his throat.
          “You traveled the bond. This will happen, until the both of you learn restraint.”
          The crowd tittered, the world tilted.
          “Oh god…”
          “Is something troubling you?” asked the horned form, its bemused countenance shifting to that of concern.
          “Oh GOD…”

Hrothgar and Beth (August 1991)

          “Oh my god,” Beth gasped, “did you?”
          “Did I what?” Gar response was a smug smile.
          “Hurl all over the king of the monsters or whatever he was?”
          “No, no,” Hrothgar assured her as he threw another apple slice onto the ground. “I woke up and my bed was a lake—I’d sweated up a storm and my stomach was still sour.”
          “So it was a dream.” Beth wish she didn’t sound disappointed.
          “Of course it was a dream!” Gar rolled his eyes sarcastically before meeting Beth’s directly. “But, that wasn’t the end. Obviously.”
          A bumblebee landed on a buttercup nearby and stared at her as it marched its feet in place, gathering pollen for its hive. Beth couldn’t get past the feeling it had stopped to watch and eavesdrop on the human interlopers. Then she realized what she just had thought. Could insanity be contagious?
          “I need to get back home.” The spell broken, Beth stood up and packed up her supplies that had lain at her feet.
          “Sure,” Gar replied as he mirrored her movements. “I need to get going too. Mom’s making beef stroganoff tonight, and there’s no way I’m going to be late for that!” An ever-hungry boy that acted every bit his own age had now replaced the slightly off tale-spinner that had absorbed her afternoon. He reminded Beth of her brother, she realized, when he was like this.
          “Maybe I’ll see you around,” Beth rejoined. It had been an odd afternoon, though Hrothgar had been excellent at describing his crazy dream. She was going to have fun seeing how much of it she could put on paper tonight, before she forgot.
          “Maybe. I’ll be back tomorrow. Gotta be sure he gets his snacks,” Gar smiled as he unclasped the plastic clip holding the fanny pack tight against his waist and shook it, the empty unzipped pouch facing the ground. Nothing fell out.
          It’d been half-full when they’d sat down. Looking down around them, she couldn’t see a single piece.
          “Where did…” Beth started.
           The grass rustled right where was she was looking, as if a sharp wind impressed upon the wheat-thick grass and then drew a lightning quick line to the far side of the field.
          “See you tomorrow, Beth!” Gar said in the same eerie, overeager tone he’d used when they’d first met.  “We both will.”
          Beth slid her sketchbook into her messenger bag easily and left the wood.
          Quickly.

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