By Anika Desai
The forest had never been darker, but during new moons, even the fireflies gave up. The human realm had their seasonal depression in the fall and winter, but for the creatures of the forest, it came in the couplets of days when the sky just wasn’t bright enough. As a gnome, Gerard was no stranger to it, stocking up on whatever herbs and berries he needed and drawing his curtains shut when the moon was in its final days of waning. His people had their own superstitions, fanged creatures that slithered across the ground under the cloak of night, waterfalls that flowed backwards, taking those who were lost up into the heavens, only for their hearts and souls to be torn from their bodies, carried by birds that were all feather and no bone.
It was raining that night, but it was soft, almost soothing. For the first time, Gerard was alone in the house, struck by the absence of moonlight and the empty side of the bed. His former lover, Ada, was far gone, but the bottles of mead emptied just as fast. He sat back in his chair, eyes closed, intending to simply wait it out. Perhaps he could sleep, and if the gears and cogs of his mind could slow enough, the things that came about in the night would pass him by.
He let out a heavy sigh, unwilling to move from his chair by the hearth. The fire began to dwindle, red and orange fading into brown stone. Gerard rose, tossing a few handfuls of dried grasses and weeds into the fire. Some of them caught in the creases of his rough-skinned hand, bits of vegetation clinging to beads of sweat. A single dried dandelion caught his eye, seeds still clutching around the center, a long stem more brown than green lying parallel to his wrist. After a second of consideration, he held his hand over the fire, then let it fall.
With a sudden flash, the flames turned green, casting light the color of moss and pond scum on the walls. He leaned back in his armchair, shielding his eyes with one hand smoke poured from the fireplace. Like the rain, it was soft and light, forming in low-hanging clouds that felt like a dry sort of mist when he touched them. It was strange, but he didn’t consider it a cause for concern. Smoke-filled or not, at least he was in a place that was warm and dry, and that was enough for him.
The edges of the room began to blur slightly, bookshelves and potted plants moving around at the corners of his peripheral vision. The fire only produced more of the smoke, and to Gerard, it smelled sweet and nutty, like a house that would actually feel like home. Colors around him, faded blues and greens and reds, clothing hung on hooks and the backs of chairs, tapestries and paintings from a time he had forgotten, became a symphony as he took breath upon breath. And it was beautiful.
The wind blew, curtains fluttering like the winged terrors Ada had told him when they were children, and for the first time in his life, Gerard believed the legends of the gnomes with all of his heart. Doorknobs became eyes, and the snakes wove themselves through the spaces in the floorboards, growing larger with every bit of stained and polished wood they touched. They kept their distance, emitting sounds that would be hisses if they didn’t sound so much like music. He overcame himself, reaching his hand out to see if the creatures were real, if the shadow had any substance. It compelled him, the way serpents could fly without wings, lazily drifting like maple seeds, and when they touched his hand, they burst, releasing hundreds of white butterflies that couldn’t fly and fell like hundreds of small angels.
No, not butterflies. Dandelion seeds.
They dissolved into the smoke that ceaselessly billowed from the hearth. The things he had burned had returned to haunt him, and wasn’t that just how life worked? It was like what Ada used to say, that clocks looked like circles, not lines, and with good reason. That the moon was predictable even when it didn’t want to be, because it had to, and that calendars were marked by its shape and not its brightness. What would she say now, that he shouldn't have burned those dandelions, that he should've been more careful, that he should've stayed in fear of the snakes and the birds and everything else that the new moon brought? Another superstition from her side of the family came to mind, one taken from the land of men, in which blowing on a dandelion showed your wishes to the world, and that one day, the seeds would land back in your palms and they would become true. Nothing was impossible now, and that was terrifying more than anything else.
Violet and white resurfaced in the middle of the fire, cutting through the green.
The butterflies were wingless now, seeds strewn at his feet as he knelt, letting the smoke encircle his head. They felt like nothing as he brushed them across the floor with the side of his hand, and then they felt like fire, then kindness itself, and he was once again lost in a dry reservoir of white fuzz, deep gray smoke curling from the edges of the seeds/
"I burned the wishes," he whispered. Maybe it was the smoke or the mead talking, but Gerard knew that he wouldn't be here, lost amongst imaginary monsters on the floor, if only Ada had stayed. If only she had loved him enough, and they could've had a daughter, like she wanted, and they could've moved out of this miserable forest to a nicer, larger tree by the seaside, and maybe they could've done everything that they wanted. It lay at his feet, and salt-filled breezes flowed through the closed windows, accompanied by the laughter of a child he didn't recognize. The snakes and birds in the air melted, smudging like paint, and suddenly Ada was in front of him. She was exactly as he last saw her, her hair tucked back with flowers, a suitcase in her hands, and this time he didn’t beg her to stay. As she turned and left, she left footprints in the thin layer of dandelion seeds on the floor.
The wind stopped its whispering, the fire gone. Gerard brushed the seeds off of his hands, only to find them empty. He had let the dandelion’s wishes burn just to fuel the hearth, yet it still left him cold and shaking in the dark.