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The Creek photo

He had found the dryad in the woods behind his elementary school. She was naked, except for her green hair which was long and tumbled down her front in leafy waves. Max introduced himself politely, like he always did when speaking to an adult. When she answered him, her voice was music. They talked for five minutes about salamanders in the creek, and she told him all their names. Then, she reached out a slender arm and Max thought she was going to grant him magic powers, but she just took the rest of his Pringles. He didn’t see her for another seven years.

He was in high school and had wandered toward the creek on a volunteer walk home. He skipped the bus to mull over the slow, creeping reality he was a disappointment compared to his younger brother, David.  He had his bookbag, unfinished homework, and an eighth of weed. Rolling a blunt on the large stone, he tried sorting through deadlines in his head: essays, exams, a Spanish project. His thoughts were a cluttered mess.

On the air there was a melody, a gust of wind through the tree canopies. She appeared. The same forest spirit, fair and beautiful and naked. He was stupefied.

“You’re real,” he said.

“Yes,” she giggled.

With the curl of a finger, she beckoned him closer. He rose spellbound and crossed the creek.  What if she was going to kiss him? What if he could touch her breast? His heart pounded out his ears. But she didn’t kiss him, just snatched the blunt from his hands.

“What is this?”

He figured she wouldn’t tell his parents or teachers, so he explained.

“Like this?” She brought it to her lips and inhaled so deeply, the entire blunt was eaten up. Within a few minutes, she was laughing and talking about drinking sap from the old roots, nectar from the Mother Tree. This was like that, only not as sweet.

He went back to the forest glade every day for two weeks but wouldn’t see her again for another five years. He would be home for an emergency visit. He was off with his on and off girlfriend, Hailey. Classes at the nearby community college weren’t going well, either. He couldn’t focus. Now, his parents were getting a divorce after twenty-six years. His dad had someone new. A younger partner at the firm who had just exited her own marriage. Max was back picking up the pieces. David was still at Duke and couldn’t get home until winter break, even though mom was near catatonic.

On a visit to the new CVS next to his old elementary, he bought an energy drink. Then, for no reason, he walked back behind the store into the woods.  It had been so long since he had thought of the nymph, but he remembered his old route. He found the large rock centered in the creek and stood atop it. Did she live here or just visit?

“If you’re here,” Max said, “I could use some advice.”

The water trickled around pebble and stone. He wondered how much water had flowed past this spot since his last visit. Such a small stream, and yet, it never stopped. A lake’s worth, an ocean? He checked the time. He threw his empty can into a nearby bush, briming with other trash and plastic, and turned to leave.

A sudden breeze. The nymph was there reclining by the running waters. Her smile faded when she saw him. She asked what was wrong. Max tried to explain, but he wasn’t sure what a forest spirit understood about moms and dads and marriage. She listened. He finished his story with his mom in bed, unwilling to rise, meals untouched.

“She has lost balance.” The dryad’s voice was a flute, her arms strummed invisible cords. Max watched her bathe under the green light. She smiled and gave him a wink, and he thought she would manifest a panacea. He pictured a glowing potion of blue miracle. He was ready to pour whatever she gave him in his mom’s wine. But when he walked up to her, she took his watch.

She played with the buttons. “What’s it do?”

“Tells time,” he said.

“Why not use the sun, the stars?”

Max shrugged. She said nothing more about his mother but named a few of her favorite constellations. Explained how to follow the coyote when the moon was hiding to a gateway. None of it was very helpful, and she never gave him back his watch.

The last time, Max was thirty-six. He was helping David move mom’s stuff. She had fallen the month prior and if it weren’t for a neighbor, would have stayed collapsed on her veranda all day. She needed a place with more supervision, and David could afford it.

While he was in town, Max planned on asking his brother for advice or the number of a good lawyer. A temporary month of separation had become nearly a year. Hailey was now asking for a divorce. That was a crazy thought—him, on his own. If he didn’t love her, he at least knew her. Fifteen years together, finishing school and starting careers, growing up and then apart. Inside him, his was stuck with only two words—acquaintance and everyone. His coworkers and friends, his mother, his father with his new wife, even David—especially David. Once Hailey was gone, who would he know?

Twice he started on the topic but gave up. David was sweating through his shirt moving the furniture and stacking boxes. He had a system. Large, heavy items toward the back, loose items between banker boxes. The bikes would be last. Very efficient.

 When the truck was all packed, David shook his hand and left for a hotel. Max went to the creek.

The forest was being cleared for new neighborhoods. Probably in the same style as the blue plastic-sided houses a street over. Each one an L-shape with a two-car garage. Max didn’t have to hike through the woods. He drove right up to the spot on a new road. Backhoes were parked at the end of a cul-de-sac and waited for another day’s work. Down toward the water, patches of earth were reshaped into bare, level plots of mud. Max could see a few foundations and the wooden frames for two or three houses.

He closed his car door and walked toward the large stone. There weren’t many trees left. He stood a while on a mound of mud watching the silver line of water move, wondering if the dryad would appear. He couldn’t imagine her here and now, in this colonized place.

Then, he caught sight of her, watching him with her lips open. An opaque silhouette camouflaged and fading, between two remaining trees.

“Hello,” he said.

“Max,” she said.

“Yeah, it’s me.” He took a few steps forward and nearly lost his footing in the slick clay. She seemed to shrink back from his approach, so he stopped. He wanted to fill her in, ask for some help with his mom and Hailey. He didn’t want to be alone. If ever he needed a miracle, this was the day, but he stopped at the sight of a concrete mixer and a pile of felled trees.

“The magic is nearly gone here,” she said.

“Shit, I’m sorry.” Max stood in the mud and thought about all the tidy, ugly homes he passed on his drive over. The long asphalt lanes and empty parking lots. Convenience stores, streetlights, the contrived ponds, and their fountains by the new mall. But it was more than geography. It was everything. David, in his office, pecking on the keys of his computer. Himself behind the counter at the store, under rows of fluorescent tubes. Withholding Taxes. Contributing to a 401k. Sensible, inevitable things that were suddenly there. Like the rubber mulch under the playgrounds.

“Is there any magic elsewhere?” Max really wanted to know.


“How do I find it?”

“Do you remember what I told you?”

“No,” Max said, because he forgot most things, and he didn’t like riddles. A small smile disappeared between her pressed lips. She said nothing, and Max went on staring, losing sight of her between the trees. When she was gone, he knew she was gone for good.


image: Nathan Bachman