The day would be upon them soon. Selda had risen before the sun had, though the night was retreating rapidly from the encroaching dawn. From where she lay, only a few hundred yards from the edge of the forest, she could see a golden haze glowing along the rim of the mountains. Yawning, stretching, and brushing several stray strands of flaxen hair out of her eyes, Selda turned to see Idony asleep on the blanket next to her, curled up like a frightened hedgehog. An oddly appropriate posture, Selda reflected.
She turned to the east, and wondered what the day had in store for her. However, what pressed upon her consciousness much more urgently was what the day had in store for Idony.
Selda kneaded her braid nervously and turned back to her slender, dark-haired companion, studying the gentle curves of her light brown face, remembering the first time she had seen it all those years ago, and all that had happened since then...
It had been a busy, noisy night in the tavern, and Selda was carrying mugs of ale out to the place's male patrons nearly nonstop. Their rude jeers and occasional attempts to fondle her were beginning to grate on her nerves. A silent cloaked figure hunched over a small table in the corner caught Selda's eye. None of the other men in the tavern seemed to have noticed the newcomer, and they certainly weren't engaging in any talk with him either. As the night wore on, the men came and went, but the stranger remained at his seat, never speaking or being spoken to.
Eventually, curiosity had gotten the better of Selda, and she had quietly approached the figure. As she drew close, she noticed a large bundle leaning against the stranger's table, with a bow and a quiver of arrows beside it.
"I noticed you sitting here," she said kindly. "Did you wish to buy something? Ale, perhaps? Or mead?"
The stranger lifted his head and drew back his hood slightly, not far enough to expose his hair, but far enough to reveal, to Selda's surprise, that he was not a man, but a young woman, not much older than Selda herself. Her skin was noticeably darker than Selda's, and her eyes were large, shadowed by thick, black eyebrows.
"No," the woman replied in a low, slightly rough voice. "I never could withstand either."
Her dull green eyes stared deep into Selda's brown ones.
"I've been watching you as well," she said. "Have you worked at this tavern long?"
"For many years," Selda replied.
"You aren't married?"
"No, I'm not."
The stranger exhaled deeply and glanced at the tavern's rowdy patrons. They were conversing in a loud, unruly fashion, the drink spilled from their mugs creating a veritable rainfall.
"I can't say that I blame you," she remarked.
Selda was unsure what to say to the stranger's comment. There was an awkward pause, during which she decided to change the subject.
"And what of you?"
The stranger drummed her fingers on the table's unfinished surface.
"I am a traveler," she said simply, making a small gesture towards the bundle near her. "I go from town to town, never staying in one place for long. The one place that I can truly call my home for I rarely spend much time away from it is the forest to the west."
Selda's eyes grew wide.
"You live there?" she gasped. "But aren't there bears and wolves in that forest?"
"If there are, I've never met any," the stranger chuckled. "It's not nearly as horrible as you might imagine. There are many ponds and streams, thousands of trees to keep you dry in the rain, and lots of wild game. It is truly a lovely place to spend one's days..."
Here she sighed deeply.
"...Though it does grow terribly lonely at times. There's no one to confide your thoughts and secrets to, no one to turn to in times of trouble, no one to consult in times of indecision..."
Selda nodded. She imagined what it would be like to be in the stranger's shoes, all alone in the wild woods. Obviously, the stranger could look after herself, but Selda wasn't confident that she could be just as independent in such a different environment.
"But what am I boring you with this story for?" the stranger suddenly said lightheartedly. "You've got work to do, and I'm just keeping you from your paying customers. I apologize for talking your ear off like I just did. It's one of my smaller faults..."
"Oh, don't worry," Selda said gently, nodding her farewell and turning her attention to the rest of the tavern. A pair of bristly men who noticed her do this began pounding their mugs on their table, demanding that they be refilled. Selda hurried to them immediately, though for the next hour, as she went about her duties, her mind kept returning to the cloaked woman she had spoken to. She was filled with an unquenchable curiosity about the woman, her history, and the tree-filled wilderness that she called her home, and the more she thought about her current occupation, the more she realized that she hated working in a squalid tavern with drunken men constantly treating her like a plaything. No matter how perilous a life in the forest with only one person for company could be, she felt that she would much rather face it than a life as a serving wench.
When closing time finally began to draw near, Selda had made up her mind. She went to the small closet that served as her living quarters, changed into the most travel-worthy clothing she had, bundled together her sparse belongings and left a brief note to her employer explaining that she had resigned.
When she returned to the main room of the tavern, the woman in the cloak was gone. Alarmed, Selda ran out the tavern's door to find a slim figure leaning against the wall of the building. The figure's hood was completely back, revealing a head covered with a crop of short, dark hair that stuck out at odd angles. The head was also turned in Selda's direction, and Selda could see that it was that of the stranger.
"Why, hello again," the stranger smiled. "Come to see me off?"
"No," Selda panted. "I want to come with you!"
The stranger's smile took flight, leaving a confused frown etched upon her lips.
"Do you?" she asked. "Friend, what I said inside...I was merely giving voice to my thoughts. I didn't mean to coerce you into joining me. Living in those woods is hardly a bed of roses, and you hardly fit the profile of one who..."
"You didn't coerce me," Selda interrupted. "You just made me look at my life and realize that anything could be better than serving drinks in a tavern for the rest of my days. Please, at least let me come with you, to see what your existence is like. I promise not to hinder you if I can help it, and if it becomes too much for me, I will leave you at the next town we arrive at. Please?"
The stranger gazed thoughtfully at Selda, looking over her from head to toe. Then she glanced downwards and sighed deeply, shaking her head slowly as she raised her head to look at Selda again.
"It's more than just learning to live out in the forest," she said quietly. "There are things about...about me that might frighten you."
Selda remained were she stood, a little uncertain but not scared.
"What things? Have you killed anyone? Are you a thief? Or a kidnapper?"
"No, no, no, I'm none of those," the stranger said.
"Then what else can you possibly be that could frighten me?"
The stranger paused, gnawing at her lower lip in contemplation.
"I think it would be best to tell you after we have gotten to know each other," she finally said. "Then you could decide whether you want to put up with me in spite of my flaws, or leave me."
"Well, if that is truly the way you think it should be..."
"It is," the stranger replied. Her eyes fell upon the bundle Selda was holding.
"I see you've come prepared," she said approvingly. "You may need more than whatever's in there, but there's no reason why we can't spend tonight in the woods and find what else you need tomorrow. Are you ready to leave?"
"Yes, yes I am," Selda said eagerly. Then a thought struck her and she put a finger to her lips. "Except for one thing..."
"Yes?" the stranger asked.
"What is your name?"
The stranger smiled again.
"Eye-don-ee," Selda repeated, enunciating each syllable of the woman's title.
"And you?" Idony asked.
"Selll-daahh," Idony repeated, in a gentle mockery of Selda's treatment of her name. With a grin, she extended her hand.
"Well, I hope this adventure won't be too much for you, Selda," she said as Selda, uncertain whether to shake or kiss Idony's proffered hand, cautiously put out her own right hand, which Idony shook with an oddly gentle grip.
When they had reached the woods, whose trees painted the night even darker than it already was, Idony led Selda to a small clearing. There, they put down their bundles and Idony began unpacking hers, which was considerably larger than Selda's.
"Are you hungry?" Idony asked.
"A little," Selda replied.
Idony reached into a small pouch and withdrew a thin, shriveled object. She held it out to Selda, who stared inquisitively at it and asked what it was.
"It's dried deer meat," Idony said. "It's as tough as shoe leather when you first bite into it, and there's not much flavor, but it's filling."
Selda sampled the meat, and found that it was everything that Idony said it was and not much else. Still, she thanked Idony profusely.
"Don't worry," Idony said. "This isn't all we'll be eating while we're in the forest. Rabbit is much better, and there are lots of roots to be found in these woods too that taste wonderful in stews."
She paused and gazed gravely at Selda.
"You're not afraid of eating nothing but what we have to kill or dig up, are you?"
Selda had to think about this for a moment, but eventually, she said:
"No. No, I'm not."
Idony nodded with what seemed like admiration.
"Good. And keep in mind that this forest is vast, and there are many villages built near its boundaries, so we won't be completely cut off from the human world. A few nights out of each year, I sit and eat at a table or sleep in a bed, especially when winter comes."
"But what will we sleep on tonight?" Selda inquired.
"Tonight?" Idony echoed. "Tonight I sleep on the ground. You, however, can sleep on this."
She unrolled a large hide from the top of her bundle and handed it to Selda.
"Is this yours?"
"Yes," said Idony, pulling a thick, dark sheet from her bundle. "But if you don't mind, I'm keeping my blanket. Tomorrow we can find a tanner and see about getting you a sleeping mat of your own. There should be a place in town where we can get you a blanket as well."
"I think there is," Selda said, laying the mat down on the soft forest floor. "Gwenyth the weaver sells blankets."
"Perfect," Idony said. "Do you have any money with you?"
"I could say the same of my wealth," Idony shrugged. "Occasionally I trade skins or meat in exchange for coins, but I rarely have to buy anything for myself. The forest provides nearly all that I need. Don't worry, though. I'll make sure you have everything you need to live here."
"Thank you," Selda said. She watched as Idony removed a small belt from around her waist, unfastened her cloak and rolled it up into a makeshift pillow, then lay down on the ground, pulling her blanket over her and placing her cloak under her head. Selda lay down on her mat, and wondered how much more uncomfortable the ground would be without the mat covering it. Still, she refused to let a hard, lumpy bed spoil her new adventure.
After a few quiet minutes broken only by the sound of the night animals and the wind in the trees, Selda turned to Idony, whose back was to her.
"Yes?" Idony mumbled.
"Why do you live out here?"
Idony's chest heaved as another sigh escaped her.
"When the time comes, you'll know, Selda."
Selda thought the time had come barely a week after their first night together. They had spent that time making their way through the forest, never straying too far from a small river that Idony had discovered before she came to the tavern that Selda had worked at. On their third day in the woods, Selda had watched Idony as she had set a snare for a rabbit, which was sprung barely an hour after it had been set. Selda couldn't watch Idony kill it, however, and from the sound of her voice, Idony didn't seem too thrilled by the experience either.
"Everything has to die so that something else must live," she said tonelessly. "The least I can do is to not let them suffer when I kill them."
Selda grimaced and nodded in response to this. That evening, Idony cooked the rabbit over a small fire, which she had kindled with the help of a small piece of flint she kept in a pouch on her belt. As tender as the flesh was, Selda couldn't help shuddering as she thought of the living, breathing, furry thing that it had once belonged to.
Idony gently touched Selda's back upon noticing her discomfort.
"You'll grow used to it," she said gently. "If I can, then so can you."
Selda sincerely hoped that she would. However, even that shocking event wasn't enough to distract her mind from something else she had been contemplating. She had started watching Idony closely, and noticed that there was something just slightly different about her, something that separated her from the hundreds of people she had known throughout her life. It was such a subtle difference that Selda barely noticed it until she saw Idony shoot an arrow at a young deer, then take out the plain dagger she wore at her side and begin to skin the animal.
Selda forced herself to look at the grisly sight, and doing so, she could see the movements of the hand Idony was using to cut the deer's flesh clearly. Selda blinked in surprise.
"You're left-handed," she observed.
Idony stopped gutting the deer and slowly turned to face Selda with an indifferent expression.
"Yes, I am," Idony said simply.
Selda didn't say anything in response to this, so Idony returned to her task. After a few moments, Selda said:
"Is this why you're living out here?"
"No," Idony said without looking up.
"Were you driven out of your village because..."
"Then were you afraid that they might..."
"You're not a witch, are you?"
Idony flung down her dagger and leapt to her feet, facing Selda with a stony glare, breathing heavily. For the first time, Selda felt genuinely afraid of Idony. Still, she stood her ground for several breathless seconds while Idony gazed coldly at her, then the dark-haired woman let out a shaky exhalation, and spoke in a slow, level voice:
"No. I'm not a witch, and I'm not evil or marked by the Devil or anything else you might think I am. I'm no different than anybody else just because I use my other hand. Do you understand?"
Selda, unable to speak, merely nodded.
"Good," Idony said, sounding calmer. "Just remember that I'm a person, just like you, Selda. Now, let me get back to this deer."
She crouched down again and picked up her dagger. Selda gazed contemplatively at Idony, Idony's left hand, to be precise. When Idony had nearly completed separating the deer's skin from its bones, Selda piped up again:
"So being left-handed isn't the reason why you spend your days here?"
"No, it isn't," Selda replied.
"When will you tell me what the reason is?"
"I told you," Idony said. "When the time comes."
As the weeks rolled on and summer began approaching, Selda began to grow acclimated to her new life. The sensation of falling asleep to the chirp of insects and the rustle of leaves was a peaceful one, once she became accustomed to it. Carrying her own sleeping mat on her back was a little cumbersome at first, but with Idony carrying most of their supplies, she felt it would hardly be fair to complain. Idony always had enough food in the bundle she bore upon her back, and she always kept a watertight pouch with her, so thirst was never a problem either. When Selda began growing self-conscious about the smell of her body, Idony directed her to the river and found a calm spot where she could bathe.
It was a carefree existence, and having Idony to accompany Selda dispelled any loneliness she might have developed. She enjoyed talking with Idony as they walked in the shade of the mighty trees, and hated to think what it was like for Idony to be alone in the woods, with nothing but the songs of birds to listen to.
Still, Idony was an unusual creature. Selda hadn't realized just how unusual she was until she had seen Idony's wardrobe the morning after their first encounter. She was wearing a small vest, with a long-sleeved tunic on underneath it. Below that was the belt that Selda had noticed earlier, with the dagger on Idony's right hip and the pouch fastened to the belt on her left.
It was what was below the belt that made Selda look twice. At first glance, Idony seemed to be wearing trousers, but upon closer examination, she seemed to be wearing a split-skirt, just as Selda herself was.
"It was once an ordinary skirt," Idony said, noticing Selda's confused stare. "I just cut it in half and sewed it up the way you see it now. It was less risky than asking the tailor for trousers that would fit a woman and having rumors start to take wing."
Selda nodded in agreement, fascinated by Idony's resourcefulness. However, Idony's converted skirt was nothing compared to what she carried on her back every day. In the darkness of the tavern, Selda had regarded Idony's bundle as a simple knapsack. However it was anything but simple, Selda soon realized.
When the bundle was completely empty and spread flat, it was essentially a large hide with the ends of two leather straps sewn to it. The edge of the hide was bordered by small holes, spaced about three inches apart, bordering the entire perimeter of the skin, with a thick cord threaded through the holes. When Idony wanted to don the bundle, she turned it upside down, so that the straps were on the underside, piled her supplies in the hide's center, laid her blanket over them, then pulled the ends of cords until the edges of the hide completely encased the items inside. It was comparable to closing a drawstring pouch. Idony then tied the cords in a tight knot, slipped her arms through the leather straps and shouldered it. Even the dangling ends of the cords served their own purpose: they tied Idony's sleeping mat to the top of the bundle, looping around it and in front of her, whereupon she would tie them around the straps on her shoulders.
"Did you make that too?" Selda asked one morning, as she was watching Idony place what were now their shared belongings in the middle of the hide.
"Yes," Idony said. "I like making things for myself. If you buy a knapsack that someone else made, it can't truly be yours, can it?"
Selda smiled a little at this. After Idony had packed and shouldered her bundle, she shut her green-brown eyes and breathed in deeply through her nose.
"I think today is the first day of summer," she said quietly.
"Truly?" Selda asked in astonishment. "And it was spring when I left that tavern. How time flies!"
"I know," said Idony, almost too quietly to be heard.
Six days later, Idony had successfully killed another deer, an adult doe this time. Selda asked why Idony wasn't gathering any plants besides roots to go with their meat.
"I have no idea which plants in this forest are edible and which ones aren't," Idony confessed. "And I don't want to risk getting poisoned by eating the wrong type of berries. After all, I can always buy fruits and vegetables in the villages..."
"But I know which plants you can eat," Selda said. Idony gazed at her quizzically.
Selda eagerly explained how an elderly scholar had visited the tavern years ago, and had asked if there were a room in the tavern that he could stay in for several nights, since the nearby inn had no vacant rooms. Since he agreed to pay the tavern's owner an ample sum, he was given Selda's room, while Selda had to sleep in the tavern's main room. As angered as she was by this, she was curious about the scholar, who, over the following days, left his room for hours at a time, taking several books and writing implements with him each time.
One day, when curiosity finally got the better of Selda, she snuck into his room and opened one of the books he had neglected to take with him on one of his outings. The book was full of detailed drawings of various flora, from trees to grasses. As she was leafing through this book, the scholar suddenly returned. Fortunately, he turned out to be an even-tempered gentleman who not only forgave Selda for sneaking into his room, but offered to show her the drawings he had made of the various plants in the nearby forest (since cataloguing their species turned out to be what he was doing when he wasn't in his room).
Selda observed the intricate drawings and listened to his narration of each plant's characteristics with genuine interest. She hadn't known that there were so many different types of things growing in the earth around her village. She was especially intrigued by the types of plants that the scholar said were edible, be it their berries, leaves or roots. She was so fascinated by this new knowledge that before the scholar left, she asked his permission to copy some of his drawings that she could keep for her own. The amiable scholar not only granted her permission, but gave her the paper, ink and quill necessary for the task.
"So you copied the drawings of all the plants that were edible, to some extent?" Idony asked when Selda's story was over.
"Yes, I did. Do you want to see one of my drawings?"
Idony nodded. Selda reached into a bag that Idony had made for her several days ago out of deerskin and withdrew a roll of papers, tied together with a cord. She untied the cord and plucked the outermost sheet free.
"My goodness," Idony said as Selda unrolled the sheet, revealing a black and white likeness of a sprig of a blackberry vine, "You drew that?"
"You're very good," Idony said. "And if you can truly find some berries that can be eaten safely..."
"I already have," Selda said, reaching into her bag again and extracting a handful of plump, red berries.
Idony smiled widely. She continued smiling as Selda helped her prepare the evening meal, which they finished with Selda's berries. Much to Selda's relief, they had only the tiniest bitter taste to them.
As Selda lay on her mat and watched the fire dance away, Idony sat with her back against a tree, staring at a patch of sky visible through the branches above them.
"Selda?" she asked quietly.
"I owe you an apology."
"An apology? What for?"
"When I first let you join me...to be honest, although I felt you would be a good companion in my travels, I felt that you simply couldn't endure living like this. But you've proven me wrong every day especially today. With you, now I won't have to get my hands dirty digging up roots whenever I want something besides meat."
Selda blushed and bowed her head. Idony continued, in a slightly more somber tone:
"I feel that I can truly trust you as a friend now. Do you feel the same way towards me?"
Selda gazed into Idony's large eyes, which caught the firelight and made them glow in a bewitching manner.
"Yes...I believe I do."
"I am glad to hear that," Idony said with a smile that seemed a little forced. "But listen to me, Selda: If you truly trust me, you will hear what I have to say and swear you will do what I tell you to do. Again: Do you trust me?"
Selda's heart began beating a little more strongly as she stared at Idony, whose glowing eyes suddenly appeared plaintive and afraid. She frantically began questioning her previous words. Did she truly trust this wild woman that lived in the woods like an animal? A woman who dressed like a man? A woman who was left-handed?
Despite her fears and anxieties, Selda eventually forced out the word "yes." Idony nodded solemnly.
"Very well. What I have to tell you is this: If anything should happen to me tomorrow, do not fear for me. No matter what happens, you must remain calm. Even though you've proved yourself as someone who remains strong in difficult situations, I cannot stress the importance of keeping your wits about you tomorrow. Just be still, and wait for the day to end."
Selda was silent, but the sounds of the forest suddenly seemed incredibly loud to her. She remained mute as Idony slowly got to her feet, laid out her sleeping mat and stretched herself out upon it.
"What...what is going to happen to you tomorrow?" Selda finally whispered.
"That's the crux of the matter," Idony said as she pulled her blanket over her shoulders. "I don't know. But please...promise me you will remain strong, whatever it turns out to be."
"Whatever it turns out to be"...How could I have known what it would turn out to be, Selda thought to herself. How could I have possibly been prepared for it? How was I to know?
Selda awoke early the following morning, so early that the first rays of the sun had yet to piece the misty gloom. As she was rubbing her eyes, she suddenly remembered Idony's warning from the previous night. She sat bolt upright on her mat and turned to see Idony sitting nearby, facing the east, looking as if she had been awake for some time.
Idony turned her way and nodded in greeting. Selda smiled and nodded back, then sat silently for a few minutes, trying to figure out what to say. Idony appeared well, and the day seemed to have started, even though dawn hadn't truly broken yet. Were Idony's words merely a test of Selda's loyalty to her?
As Selda was gathering up the courage to address Idony, Idony began raising her arms, slowly stretching while her mouth gaped in a weary, drawn-out yawn. When her arms could be stretched no higher, Selda suddenly saw a glint of yellow on Idony's outspread fingertips. She whirled in the direction Idony was facing to see the first golden light of dawn lighting up the sky.
There was then a strange noise, unlike anything Selda had heard before. She turned back to Idony and almost screamed in shock.
Where Idony had been an instant ago was now a small, slender tree. Selda tried yanking her braid to make sure she wasn't dreaming, and she didn't wake up. She slowly rose to her trembling feet and slowly approached the tree, whose leaves were now golden with sunlight.
Selda thought the tree was an oak of some kind, though she had no way of knowing precisely which species it was. She had never seen the species in the forest before, of that much she could say with certainty.
Her scholarly observations did little to end the horror Selda felt upon seeing Idony transformed into a tree. The tree even resembled Idony in some ways: the trunk curved in a mimicry of the position Idony had been in the moment before the change, the bark was a delicate brown color that almost matched that of Idony's skin, and there were only two branches reaching up to the heavens in exactly the manner that Idony's arms had been outstretched.
Selda cautiously reached out and touched the trunk. What she touched felt exactly like tree bark. As opposed to what, Selda asked herself. Human skin? She rested her palm against the trunk, wondering if she would feel the beating of a heart through the bark. She didn't.
Overwhelmed, Selda sat down and stared up at the tree's crown. Why had this happened? And more importantly, how did Idony know that something was going to happen to her on this day?
Those two questions chased themselves around Selda's head for the rest of the day, as she tried to remain calm, as Idony had bade her to. She left their campsite later that morning, gathered some berries, found the river and bathed herself, then returned in the late afternoon.
"Just be still, and wait for the day to end," Idony had said. Well, Selda was keeping as still as possible, and waiting as patiently as she could for the day to end, but her anxiety still remained.
Finally, unable to think of anything else to do to keep her mind distracted, she unrolled her collection of plant drawings, found a blank sheet, picked up a burnt stick from the previous night's fire and began sketching Idony...first her roots, then her trunk, finally working her way up to her leaves...
The sun was finally starting to set. Selda alternated her gaze between the fading light to the west and the tree that was Idony, wondering when the day would truly end. For over an hour, Selda sat on her mat, fidgeting nervously, her hands trembling.
At last, when the sky was completely dark except for a dull red glow, the shape of the small tree dissolved as if it had turned to dust, leaving the form of Idony behind...and it looked as if she was still in mid-yawn.
As soon as the tree shape had completely left her, her body tensed. She stared towards the east, then whirled around to stare at the ruddy hue lining the western horizon.
"Good Lord," she gasped, almost collapsing.
"Are you all right?" Selda asked, running to Idony's side and placing a reassuring arm around her shoulders.
"I'm good, I'm good," Idony said, still sounding shocked. "What on earth happened, though? The way it changed from sunrise to sunset in a matter of moments, I must have been sitting here like a statue all day!"
"Well, in a sense, you were..." Selda faltered.
"What do you mean?" Idony demanded. "For me, I was sitting here at sunrise when the world suddenly became blurred and indistinct, and remained that way for a few moments, then suddenly my vision became clear again and the sun was setting. What happened to me from your perspective?"
"You..." Selda began, then dropped her gaze awkwardly.
"Please, tell me." Idony begged. "I'm aching to know. Please."
"You were...a tree." Selda said flatly.
Idony blinked in surprise.
"A tree?" she repeated incredulously.
"I drew you," Selda said, showing Idony her charcoal sketch. Idony examined it closely, then, for the first time, noticed the ground beneath her feet, which had been violently churned up from where several roots had been a few moments before.
Idony started laughing, and continued laughing nonstop for almost an entire minute. Then she seemed to grow calmer and slowly sink to the ground. She drew a shaking hand across her brow, upon which beads of sweat had started to form.
"Well," she said in a firm, yet quavering voice, "Thank you for not letting anyone chop me down."
"You have to understand that it's but a single curse," Idony explained the next morning. "It simply manifests itself in an entirely different way every year."
"How long have you had this...curse?" Selda asked nervously.
"Since my first moon blood," Idony said. "And it's visited me year after year, seven days after the first day of summer every time. The first time, it seemed as if everyone in the village my father, our neighbors, the local children was speaking in a different tongue. I couldn't understand any of them. The following morning, though, my father told me that I had been the one who was talking differently. I barely felt his beating because I was so confused by the incident. Then, on a day some time after that one, everyone started looking at me fearfully, as if I were some sort of monster. When I finally managed to find a mirror...have you ever seen a cat's eyes, Selda?"
"Why, yes. There were a few strays in my village."
"Well, I had a cat's eyes. The color was unchanged, but the dark portions had become like those of a cat, long and tapered at the top and bottom. I was so concerned that I stayed in my room the rest of the day. When the sun went down, my eyes had returned to normal. After that, I started to keep track of the days. After a full year had passed by, something happened to me again."
"Is it always something as extreme as changing into a tree or speaking only a foreign language?"
"Not always. Once I woke up with a horrible rash that took the better part of a week to clear completely. The effects of the curse aren't always confined to a single day the aftereffects can last much longer."
"How terrible!" Selda cried.
"Not that terrible," Idony said. "I've kept note of each occurrence of the curse, and as far as I know, I've never been injured because of it, and I've never injured anyone else because of it."
"But...you left your village nonetheless?"
Idony gazed sadly into Selda's eyes for a moment, then nodded.
"Yes. Even before the curse began, I felt like I didn't belong. The neighboring children hated playing with me, so I spent most of my youth with my father the only family I ever knew, and even he seemed to loath me. When the curse started, I could see no better reason to leave that village behind. I tried making my home in another town at first, but even there I felt like a mole in the branches of a tree. It wasn't until I had made a home for myself in these woods that I had found a place where I could truly be at peace."
Selda stared at Idony.
"And you enjoy this way of life you've chosen for yourself?"
"Of course. Some people feel they will go mad without the company of many others, but I've always found solace in being by myself. And the cursedays themselves are hardly horrid it's the waiting for them that pains me, having no idea what they will be like."
"And facing them alone?"
Idony glanced at Selda, then turned away and nodded, with a distant look in her eyes.
"Yes," she replied after a long, thoughtful pause.
She continued staring into nothingness. Finally, Selda spoke:
"I...I'll stay with you, Idony. I promise I will."
"Truly?" Idony asked, looking earnestly at Selda.
Selda extended her right hand. Idony started to extend her right as well, but Selda shook her head and motioned towards Idony's other hand. Interpreting Selda's gesture, Idony clasped Selda's hand with her left hand, managing an awkward but genuine handshake.
"Truly," Selda said.
Selda had kept her word. For the next twelve months between Idony's previous curseday (as she called it) and her next, she and Selda rarely spent a day apart. Occasionally they would visit nearby towns and acquire various essentials, as well as anything Selda felt she couldn't do without.
Eventually, Idony began telling Selda that it would only be a few days longer until the curseday came.
"How can you tell when it is near?" Selda asked. "Is it merely the changing of the seasons that alerts you to its inevitability?"
"I truly don't know," Idony replied. "It's like a little bell inside my soul begins to ring whenever the day nears, and rings ever louder until it has passed. Perhaps I have grown so finely attuned to that day that knowing when it will occur has become as natural as knowing when there will be a full moon."
On the evening of the sixth day after the beginning of summer, Selda and Idony rested on their mats in a part of the forest that was thick with ferns and old, mossy trees. Idony was kneeling and cutting her hair with her dagger, looping strands of it around the blade and slicing through them, letting the severed tufts drift to the ground. Watching her, Selda could see how her hair had attained the wild look she had first seen on her.
"Isn't it bad luck to do that?" Selda asked.
"To do what?"
"Cut your own hair."
Idony snorted bemusedly.
"Superstition," she said. "I suppose if I don't bury the strands, a witch might use them to put a spell on me?"
"Well...that's what I've been told," Selda confessed.
"There are no witches in these woods," Idony said, sawing through a thick clump of hair. "I would know if there were."
Selda shrugged and continued watching Idony out of the corner of her eye. The way Idony treated her hair, it seemed as if she hated it. On multiple occasions, Selda had glimpsed Idony wrapping a length of cloth around her chest several times and tying it tightly before donning her clothing, rendering her bosom almost as flat as a man's. It was the little things like this that made Selda think that Idony was ashamed of being a woman.
"Why do you keep your hair cut so short?" she asked.
"It doesn't get caught in anything, stay wet for very long, get grabbed by anyone, or fall in my eyes this way," Idony replied. "It used to be long before it all fell out on one of my cursedays. When it started growing back, I realized how much easier it was to have it short."
"You could always braid it if you let it grow," Selda said, holding up her long, flaxen plait.
Idony put down her dagger and stared at Selda's hair, smiling.
"No, no. My hair isn't made for braiding."
Here she paused and stared deeply into Selda's eyes.
"Besides," she said softly, "I could never make it look as beautiful as yours."
Something about the way Idony had looked and spoken to her had tugged at Selda's mind for a long time afterwards. Selda smiled as she recalled how worried she and Idony had been about what Idony's curseday would be like, and what it turned out to be when they awoke late the next morning...
Idony and Selda walked slowly through the verdant woods. Every few minutes, Selda would glance behind them.
"They're still sprouting," she said to Idony after a quarter-hour or so of silence.
"I'm not surprised," Idony replied, glancing over her shoulder. "I wonder if they will still be there when the sun goes down, or whether they will remain for...how long do things like that live?"
"I don't know, Idony. I'm not familiar with mushrooms."
"I thought you knew everything there was to know about plants."
"Yes, but mushrooms aren't plants...I don't think they are, at any rate..."
Selda looked behind her again. The footprints left by her and Idony were easy to see in the thick forest soil, but Idony's tracks were somewhat obscured by the small crop of fungi that had sprouted in each one. With every step she took, more mushrooms would sprout, leaving a small trail behind her.
"They're actually quite beautiful," Selda remarked. "Especially the big white ones with the little skirts around their middles and the ones with the red and white spotted caps."
Idony made a small sound and shrugged. The pair continued walking through the forest. When a fallen log crossed their path, both elected to climb over it rather than walking around it. Even though Idony left no footprint upon the log's mossy surface, several thin, white, shelf-like mushrooms swiftly developed where her foot had been placed.
"It's never incredibly bad," Idony explained, "But it's never terrifically pleasant either. It's always...how can I put it...awkward."
"Awkward? That doesn't sound like any sort of curse I've heard of," Selda said.
"I know...but if this weren't a curse, why haven't I ever had flowers popping up wherever I walk on a curseday? Or gained the ability to understand different tongues instead of speak a different one?"
Selda was unable to come up with a fitting reply. They traveled together in silence for some time.
"Do you think there are any werewolves in these woods?" Idony suddenly asked.
"No," Selda replied. "Do you truly think there might be any here?"
"I haven't the faintest idea," Idony confessed. "Sometimes, though...I fantasize about finding one."
"And what? Killing it?"
"No, no. Letting it bite me."
Selda stiffened and blinked, trying not to let her surprise show. Idony smiled.
"It's not what you think," she said. "I've just had this theory that if I was bitten by one of those beasts which have been called cursed by everyone I've spoken to about them I would become cursed myself. Then my own curse and the werewolf's curse would eventually meet up, battle each other and tear each other apart, leaving me with no curse of any kind."
For Selda, that curseday was one of the better ones. With some reluctance, she remembered what had happened on the curseday after that. They had made camp near the base of a small mountain range, which blocked the sky to the west.
On the seventh day after the start of summer, Idony had risen to her feet as the sun was taking its first steps into the sky. Then she had fallen backwards and remained very still. Selda had rushed to her side and found Idony's eyes wide and unblinking, her limbs limp, and her breath and heartbeat absent.
To all appearances, Idony seemed dead, and Selda almost panicked. It was the memory of what Idony said about her cursedays being nothing more than "awkward" that barely calmed her. Still, she continually whispered prayers as she did everything she could for Idony, placing blankets over her cooling body, putting a cloth over her eyes so the sun couldn't burn them, and even holding her hands and muttering comforting phrases.
When the sun had started to go down, it was a long, anxious wait for Selda, since she had no way of knowing when the day had truly ended.
When the brightest stars had started to appear overhead, Idony suddenly let out a shuddering gasp, and Selda nearly fainted in surprise. Idony gazed in Selda's direction with wide, frightened eyes. She tried to speak, but only achieved a quiet moan. It took several minutes before she could talk, and even then, it was in a barely audible voice. She asked Selda to hold her hands, which Selda did, shivering as she clutched Idony's frigid fingers. When Idony's hands started to feel warm again, she smiled, informed Selda that she would be all right for the night, and that Selda should go to sleep.
Selda tried her best to do so, but met with only limited success.
"What do you think happened?" Selda had nervously asked the following morning.
"I don't think I was truly dead," Idony replied, pacing back and forth and stretching, still trying to work the stiffness out of her limbs. "It was more like I was somewhere between the mortal world and the one beyond."
"What was it like?"
"It wasn't like anything anything I can remember," Idony reflected. "And all I remember is being somewhere else, not feeling anything, hearing anything, or even seeing anything except total darkness. At least I don't have to worry about that ever happening again...until I truly die."
The year after that curseday was fairly uneventful, except for one time when a man had tried to rob them in a squalid section of one of the towns they visited. He seemed confident that the two women would grow hysterical and hand over whatever they carried with them, an attitude which swiftly changed when Idony drew her dagger. At the sight of the small but potentially deadly weapon, the would-be thief quickly backed away.
"Has that ever happened to you before?" Selda whispered when they were safe within the walls of a small inn. "I mean, have you ever been robbed before?"
"Yes, on the rare occasions when I'm not mistaken for a man," Idony said. "But thieves usually leave me alone."
Selda sighed. Men seemed to occupy nearly all of the most unsavory roles of society: thieves, murderers, drunkards, womanizers...she had encountered her share of several of these types in the tavern she worked at nearly all her life, and because of them, she had decided at a young age that she would never marry. No matter how handsome the man she loved was, she told herself, underneath would lurk the potential for him to become one of those uncouth scoundrels she served drinks to.
The prospect of having a child also made Selda fearful of marriage. She had heard many tales from the more decent patrons mournfully relating how their wives had died in childbirth. In other cases, the baby died instead, and in some cases, both mother and infant perished.
Selda recalled once asking Idony if she had ever considered getting married, and Idony had scoffed somewhat sourly.
"When I was a child, boys would call me names and throw dirt clods at me," she said. "When I was older, men would stare suspiciously at me and avoid me whenever possible. They've always disliked me, and I them. I've never desired to even be with a man, let alone marry one."
Selda had nodded in reply and silently marveled at how alike she and Idony were in mind, as different as they were in body.
Nothing seemed to happen to Idony on the sunrise of her next curseday. The morning brightened without incident, and it wasn't until long after Selda and Idony had eaten their first meal of the day and were walking through the woods that something happened. In mid-sentence, Idony began talking in a strange, guttural, barely comprehensible voice. Before Selda could grasp what was going on, Idony suddenly began speaking normally again.
"What happened?" Selda gasped.
"What happened?" Idony repeated. "Why, nothing. What happened for you?"
"You started speaking so strangely," Selda said nervously.
"Did I?" Idony asked. "What did I "
Her gaze suddenly became blank and she halted in midstride.
"Where is he?" she hissed. "Where is that traitorous scoundrel? I know he lives but where?"
Selda stared in horror at her companion as she continued her venomous diatribe. When she finally stopped, she blinked and looked dazed for a moment.
"I think I felt something that time," she said.
"You were talking oddly again," Selda said. "You said, Where is that traitorous scoundrel?'"
"I did?" Idony asked, bewildered. "Odd that I don't recall saying that "
Again her eyes became two cold green stones as she began speaking in that strange tone once more:
"Mother! Mother! Why did you leave me there, Mother? I waited and waited for you, but you never came back for me..."
When Idony regained her regular voice, she was only able to get a few words out before the foreign voice seemed to possess her again:
"My wife! What has become of my wife? I cannot find her on this side...where is she?"
"What...?" Selda faltered.
"She had the plague just as I did, why did she not succumb to it as well? If she did not recover from it, why is she not here with me? Catherine! where are you, Catherine?"
The truth of what was happening washed over Selda and made her shiver violently. The voices she was hearing were those of the dead. They were speaking through Idony.
When that curseday finally ended, Idony didn't seem terribly surprised when Selda explained what had happened to her. In fact, she was more disappointed than anything, since she had no recollection of what the people who had spoken though her had said.
"If I could remember even one soul's cry," she explained, "Perhaps we could apprehend the man that that soul said murdered him. But this is a curse, after all. Nothing good can come out of a curse, even a little one."
Idony paused and slowly rubbed her neck.
"Do you know of any plants that can cure a sore throat?" she asked.
"I believe so," Selda smiled. "You'll probably have to wait until tomorrow, though. It's too dark to look for them now."
Idony nodded and went to sleep without another word. Selda stayed awake much longer, thinking about the events of the curseday that had just passed.
The curseday that followed that one was much less ominous, but still fairly frightening. Idony started attracting swarms of insects that gathered in great clouds around her, yet never landing on her. Beetles, wasps, bees, locusts and flies followed her wherever she went in great, disorganized clumps. The noise created by them was overpowering, and Selda was afraid to get too close to Idony for fear of getting stung. The creatures finally dispersed at the usual time, right after sunset, and Idony heaved a great sigh of relief and remarked that perhaps her baths were becoming too infrequent.
Selda started to realize that as frightening as the cursedays were at first, they became almost amusing with the passing of time. She and Idony would often talk about her past cursedays and laugh about them, making light of days which they had both dreaded the coming of.
Not all the cursedays were treated like this, however. There were two cursedays that still made Selda feel scared. The first was the day that the dead spoke through Idony. The second was the curseday after the one when Idony attracted the insects...
On the eve of Idony's next curseday, the two women had made camp in an area with few trees, despite it being deep in the forest.
"What do you think it will be like this time?" Selda asked. "Do you think it will be something big or something small?"
"Maybe I'll wake up with horns like a cow," Idony smirked. "Or maybe a toad will come out of my mouth with every word I speak."
"Those guesses both seem so...magical," Selda remarked. "What if it's something more ordinary, like that first time, when you said you woke up speaking in another language?"
"It could be," Idony said. "One curseday, I woke up feeling almost completely normal except for an unknown something that seemed to gnaw at my very being. It wasn't until I was working on my aim that I realized what was wrong. The bow and arrow felt incredibly awkward in my hands, and when I tried scratching something in a nearby tree with my blade, I knew what had happened."
"What was that?"
"I had become right-handed. It was all very disorienting, having the hand you've done everything with your entire life suddenly become completely useless. The odd thing was that not only had my handedness changed, but I felt strangely changed as well. It was if I was an entirely different person. I was myself again when the sun set, of course."
"A different person? I thought you said that using your left hand didn't make you any different from people who use their right."
Idony gazed contemplatively down at her left hand, then spread and flexed its fingers.
"Maybe I was wrong," she mused.
When Selda awakened the following day, the sun had already risen. Frightened, she sprang to her feet and ran to where Idony's mat lay. She was still sleeping, and though she appeared unchanged in any way, appearances could be frightfully deceiving with Idony on this day of the year.
Deciding not to delay the inevitable, Selda gently placed a hand on Idony's shoulder. Idony grunted, rolled over onto her back and opened her eyes. For a moment, she didn't seem to register that Selda was in front of her, then her eyes grew wide with fear and she recoiled suddenly.
"God's wounds, who the devil are you?" she gasped. "What's going on?"
Selda shivered involuntarily. Though it was Idony's voice, there was something different about it. It was slightly deeper, and her accent seemed to have changed. It was almost like the way she had been two cursedays before, but Selda knew that the dead weren't speaking through Idony this time the events only manifested themselves once.
As Selda was drawing breath for a response, Idony's gaze suddenly diverted itself to her hand. Her brow furrowed in confusion. Then she began staring wildly at her entire body, prodding experimentally at the clothes as if she didn't know what they were.
"Idony, what's wrong?" Selda asked in a trembling whisper.
Idony swung her head back towards Selda.
"What did you call me?" she growled. "What in the blazes happened to me? Gavin? Edward?"
Selda's mind swirled. Though Idony certainly looked like Idony, whoever was speaking to Selda at the moment wasn't Idony.
"Er..." Selda faltered, "What is your name?"
"It's Reynard, not that it's any of your affairs," the confused creature lying beneath Selda snarled. "Good Lord, I think I'm going mad..."
Selda tried her best to calm whatever being was possessing her friend's body, explained what was going on as best she could, and pleaded him to remain with her for the duration of the day, which he reluctantly did. At the precise moment when day turned to night that evening, Reynard-Idony suddenly froze in mid-sentence, her eyes strangely blank. Then she blinked and stared at Selda, then went limp with relief. She staggered over towards Selda and slumped to the ground beside her.
"Idony?" Selda asked.
Idony mumbled a reply without turning in Selda's direction.
"You..." Selda said slowly, "You were possessing a man's body a minute ago, weren't you?"
"I suppose I was," Idony sighed. "And the man whom I had displaced'...did he take up residence in my body, then?"
"Yes. He said his name was Reynard."
Idony groaned and placed a hand over her face. Then, after a moment, she started chuckling softly.
"How was it?" Selda ventured.
"Very different, as you might imagine," Idony replied. "Took some getting used to. The man called Reynard apparently lived alone in a nearby village and worked as a blacksmith. I don't know anything about that line of work, so I thought I'd pretend I was ill and wait the day out. By noon or so, though, I was just too restless to stay indoors any longer, so I started wandering around the town, seeing what it was like. Near evening, I found a small tavern and decided to step inside. Well, one thing led to another, and..."
Here she started snickering again.
"Well, apparently Reynard had had a disagreement with some of the men in that place some time ago. I was still a little uneasy from the whole experience, and I thought, as long as I'm occupying a body with a great deal of strength in it, why not start a fight to see what it's like?"
"All right, so I lost my head for a moment. The fight was over in a few minutes, and I couldn't say I was aching as much as the men I had sparred with. It was actually quite exhilarating, now that I think of it. Perhaps that's why men do it all the time."
"But what was it you were laughing at?"
"I know it's cruel to laugh at the misfortunes of others, but even though I bore those blows in that tavern, it's Reynard that's going to feel their aftereffects come tomorrow."
Selda winced a little, but forced a smile. Idony's face suddenly became serious, and she looked earnestly at her companion.
"But Selda what was it like for you? What did Reynard do?"
"He asked me what was going on, I explained that you were under a curse that had a tendency to make things awkward for you and occasionally others, then he sulked for a while and asked where his town was. I said I didn't know and that he should stay with me until the sun set."
"Good thinking...he didn't hurt you, did he?"
Selda shook her head.
"No, no. He may have been uncouth, but he never tried to do me harm.""Thank goodness," Idony muttered. "If he had, that would have been the first time I was responsible no, the first time my body was responsible for hurting someone on a curseday...Thank the heavens."
Selda nodded gravely, silently reflecting that Idony didn't seem concerned that she had hurt the men she had picked a fight with while she was masquerading as Reynard...it was the possibility that Reynard while wearing her skin had hurt Selda that she was afraid of.
That was the last curseday. It had been the sixth one Selda and Idony had faced together, and the seventh was just dawning. Though they only came once a year and had much traveling, hardships, hunting, talking and visiting towns between them, Selda remembered each curseday as if it had just taken place. She was certain Idony remembered them just as vividly.
The anxiety of waiting for each new day didn't seem to lessen as the years dragged on, but Selda reminded herself how much worse it was for Idony when she had to face them alone. In some ways, it wasn't just Idony's curse now it had become Selda's curse as well, and though she felt that she should be unhappy over such a thing, somehow she wasn't unhappy at all.
Her life as a serving wench had become a page in the book of her life that she was overjoyed to have turned and left behind. Her peculiar life in the woods with a single slightly eccentric companion would probably strike many as something a madwoman would choose to lead, but just as Idony had found a home in the forest, so had Selda. As long as Idony was there to accompany her, Selda wasn't afraid of being shunned or loathed because of the way she lived. She might have been afraid once, but that was another page that had been turned.
Idony was still sleeping as the sun edged further and further over the horizon. Selda sighed as she continued to gaze down at her. As truthful and honest as she had remained to Idony over the years, there were still some things that Selda hadn't told her. She hadn't told her all that had happened on the day when Idony's body had been occupied by the consciousness of a man.
As the end of that day had drawn near, Reynard-Idony, apparently having grown quite tired of merely sitting about, had suddenly started speaking words of love to Selda, who wasn't sure what to say or do in return. Before she could respond, Reynard-Idony suddenly drew close to her, threw one arm around her shoulders, then kissed her firmly upon the mouth. Although Selda felt horrified when it happened, looking back, she realized that she hadn't been frightened, but only surprised. There were other feelings that she couldn't quite grasp as well.
Selda hadn't told Idony about everything that had happened on the day the dead began speaking through her, either...and what Selda had asked her while one soul had taken a hold of her. She had recalled that the only family Idony had grown up with was her father, and curiosity had gotten the better of her. It was a simple request, but Selda could never have anticipated what the answer to it would be.
All she had said was, "Idony's mother. Will Idony's mother please speak to me, if she is there?"
"Yea, I hear," came the hoarse reply from Idony's lips. "What do you wish of me?"
"Just tell me anything you can remember about your daughter," Selda had said...and she stood in stony silence as the haunting voice spoke again:
"A wretched, wretched time, it was. Thankful I am that my memory of the accursed ordeal is faint. All night I suffered, and it was not until the first glow of day pierced the darkness that I was free of the child. It was then that a haggard creature burst into the room in which I lay.
"Woe to the one that you have brought into this world,' quoth she, for when she becomes a woman, on this day of the year for the rest of her life, she will endure one of many inconveniences of a supernatural nature. Her life will never attain any semblance of normality. She shall live a long life, but she shall never know the love or companionship of a man, and she shall never marry. As unkind as life has been for you, woman, it shall be far less kind to your daughter!'
"So saying this, she departed before I could speak. I know not what caused her to say such things, nor whether she was cursing my daughter or merely prophesizing her fate, but I had little time to contemplate the misfortune, because I left the bindings of the earth not long after. I often wonder what became of my child...she lives, of that much I am certain, but whether the words of the crone have rung true...that I do not know."
Then Idony had regained her senses, and they continued the day as if nothing had happened, with Selda reeling with the new knowledge of her friend's past.
For some time, she had kept all this knowledge from Idony, but on this morning, at long last, she felt that it was time to reveal it to her: The explanation for why Idony's curse only blighted her seven days after the beginning of summer, the origin of the curse itself, the reason why Idony had never desired a man, and most importantly, the truth that Selda had only recently come to terms with Idony loved her, and Selda now realized that she loved her back.
Somehow, this knowledge and this revelation made Selda think that perhaps there was hope for Idony. Perhaps, after seven years of sharing such an odd existence, she and Selda could somehow find a way to lift the curse. Or perhaps the curse would vanish of its own accord. Somehow, however, it didn't seem to matter to Selda. As long as they had each other, everything else seemed of lesser importance.
The sky had grown considerably bright by this time. Selda bent over Idony and kissed her ever so gently on the cheek. Idony's dirty green eyes slowly fluttered open.
"Good morning," Selda whispered almost inaudibly, smiling reassuringly. "What did you get for your birthday this year?"