Several times he fell, slipping on the ice and drenching himself in the freezing water, but he picked himself up and ran on, chasing the beautiful creature who melted into the distance. He didn't feel the cold; it was as though all the contingencies of landscape and weather had evaporated, and all that mattered was the image he pursued, the steady healthy flow of his heart. Behind him, Derin's cries faded as the boy stumbled through the swamp, falling further and further behind.
Derin was so tired and cold he thought of flinging himself into the icy water and resting there until he froze, but continued the mad chase after Matthew. The cedars ascended on all sides, tall and lordly, like druids. Derin's legs ached from the cold, but he dared not rest, frightened he would lose sight of the satyr, and then really be lost in the depths of the swamp.
What had gotten into Matthew? The boy had expected a slow and cautious trek across this wasteland, and instead, here they were, the two of them, rushing through it with as little thought as one would give who had thrown himself from a precipice. And this blind running was like that: the wind whipped Derin's face so that he imagined he was falling, and he almost closed his eyes and relaxed into the luxury of the dive, not having to do a thing but wait until he hit the bottom.
He ran through a maze, constantly ducking and swerving; his face was scratched by the cedar branches he sought to avoid. Whenever he thought he saw a clear avenue to follow his friend's advance, a thicket of wild pepperbush got in his way. In and out of the water he ran, up one hillock and down again into the water. The swamp was crisscrossed by fallen trunks, and red maple and tupelo flared at him as he ran, reaching to put out his eyes.
In his haste, he became more careless. He vaulted a fallen cedar, his right leg stretched in front, toe pointed, his left trailing over the tree-trunk. On the other side, a stretch of water lay, the ice inches below the surface. His leg, the right one, hit first, and, coming down upon that ice from the vault's height, slipped out from under him. Desperately he tried to regain his balance, but he went down on his back, sending a wave of water in front of him, into a cedar root. It caught his foot and ankle, but the rest of his body would not be braked so easily.
Like flames, the pain raced up his leg and into his groin. He groaned and lay flat in the water as the wave he had started splashed against a hummock and returned to wash over him. The cold was forgotten, Matthew was forgotten. His eyes clamped shut, his teeth bit down on his lower lip with such force he tasted blood. He was afraid to open his eyes and look, afraid to see his foot no longer connected to the rest of his leg.
When he felt the ice begin to form in his hair, Derin knew he had to get out of the water. He raised his head, opened his eyes, and looked. The ankle was huge, a gnarled knot, part of the cedar root.
"Matthew!" he yelled. But the satyr had long since vanished from view and the only thing he heard, receding into the distance, was Matthew's muffled plunge forward. And then he heard nothing at all.
Derin was stunned by the density of the silence. It had a presence of its own, a thick, almost palpable texture, like fog. The trees guarded the stillness which magnified itself when he raised his head and looked around, until the sound of water dripping from his hair was like a cascade, a waterfall.
The disparity between that silence and the racket he made when he moved immobilized the boy. He was afraid to shift his arm, to sit up. Each time he jostled, the sound of water rippling away from him resounded through the swamp, echoing from the cedars and the hummocks until he was deafened by his own faltering movement. He couldn't speak, much less yell: the thought of his own voice calling out in that stillness filled him with awe.
Gathering his strength, Derin sat up, stretched forward, and put his hands around his ankle. An arrow of pain shot through his body again, and he groaned. The ankle and lower calf were so tender he could barely touch them. He closed his eyes again and settled back; the pain was increasing. It was as though some animal, a bear or a panther, had him by the leg, tight in its strong jaws, and was holding fast. He imagined the teeth biting down, crunching through bone, severing his foot from his leg.
"Spirit of life," Derin said. Around him, the swamp whirled. In his delirium, trees toppled, sending walls of cold water over him. Beneath him, the earth opened, the ice cracked, draining all water away until he was in last night's bed of pine.
But the illusion didn't last. There was no use. He was being swallowed. He felt a great darkness in his ankle, a rush of night beginning to sweep up his leg toward hi heart. "Spirit of death," derin whispered. "Let go, let go!"
The hole in his chest slowly closed. He felt the darkness waver at his knee and ebb down at his ankle. The grip on his wracked foot subsided and then gave up altogether. He opened his eyes. He could feel nothing but the pain, and as his eyes moved over his freezing body, down his leg, he saw them.
Near his ankle, their heads sloping from the water, frogs had gathered. But they were larger than frogs. Their skin was a dull black, their mouths gaped open, and the section of underbelly visible above the water was mottled with dense blue spots like bruises. Their red eyes stared at him without blinking, glittered like rubies in the gloom.
Derin caught his breath, involuntarily pulling his leg toward him. THe cedar root held fast and pain shot up his leg again. His moaned low in his throat, and for the first time, the frogs moved, slightly away. Where had they come from? The boy tried to calm himself long enough to remember if he'd heard anything as he'd run through the water, the croak of a frog, a bird's song. No, there had been nothing; if these creatures made a sound, they were hideously silent now.
When he lay still, they moved toward his ankle again, so smoothly they seemed to be floating. The water swayed away from them, a slight bulge in its dark surface, and as they approached, the boy thought he saw their mouths open further. There was no doubt: whatever these creatures were, they belonged to the owl. Their damp skin shone in the gloom, and their eyes burned, seven pairs of bright red embers coming toward him.
"Get away!" he screamed, thrashing, throwing water at them with his hands. They shrunk at the noise, and the churning swamp, so still before, kept them at bay. As soon as he stopped, the frogs inched toward him again. He began to babble, saying whatever came into his head, anything to keep noise alive in the air. He talked about the meadowlands, about his childhood, and his mind was flooded with memories he hadn't thought about in years. They hunched there, underbellies pulsing, patiently waiting for him to be quiet again.
He closed his eyes, but down on his lower lip, and tried to wrench his ankle loose. The pain was so intense, the boy thought he would pass out. Instead, he gave vent to his terror and anguish and screamed. His cries came back to him, echoing off the cedar trunks, breaking the swamp's stillness. Derin sat up, grabbed his knee with both hands, and pulled again. This time he felt something give, as though he'd torn his foot loose. Close to his ankle the trunk of the cedar grew. Around it, roots spread out like mangroves, slimy fingers. And there in the water, free of the cedar, his ankle lay inches from the trunk.
Derin pulled himself up on one of the moss-covered hillocks, out of the water. His ankle throbbed brutally. He lay there, encompassed by pain, and watched the frogs approach. They crested the root which had caught his ankle, they surged forward to where his body had been, and stopped, several feet from the hillock, still in the water, and sat there staring at him. Derin looked behind him for a stick, for a rock. "Stay away," he said, his voice low. "Don't come near me."
As his body began to thaw, he felt tiny fires being lit within him. He was like a dark plain on which battling armies had settled in for the night. Without taking his eyes from the frogs, Derin tried to massage some blood back into his legs. His body felt dead, the carcass of an animal he hadn't seen before. He looked in the direction he'd been running when he slipped. A vista of of hillocks and cedar receded as far as he could see. In the other direction, past the fallen log he'd vaulted, the same landscape repeated itself endlessly. No variation in light gave a clue to direction; nothing looked familiar to him.
He'd taken no notice if his surroundings as he'd thrown himself forward. His only compass had been Matthew's back as he ran through the swamp. Above him, the trees disappeared into the gray sky, dwindling into sparser and sparser foliage until their spindly tops stuck into the air like spears.
The pain in his ankle spread until he was sure he could hear it in the swamp, like the ice's heartbeat. It grew out of everywhere. It was inside his skull and outside. "Stay away," he screamed. "Get away from here!" But this time his voice didn't stop them.
* * *
Matthew was unaware that Derin's cries of "Stop!" and "Slow down!" had ceased. He no longer heard the splash of water behind him, but that didn't slacken his pace. He was possessed. He would find her if it took the rest of the day, the rest of his life.
The nymph constantly eluded him. She glanced over her shoulder to see if he had gained on her, but every toss of her head threw her hair toward him, transfixing him, deepening his purpose in catching her. She darted under cover of pepperbush thickets, glided over the swamp's surface as if she ran on the water itself. She disappeared and reappeared with disconcerting frequency, so that Matthew never knew where his legs would carry him. He was breathless with anticipation; he ached to hold her.
She slipped among a copse of cedars. As Matthew splashed forward, he strained to see beyond the thicket to catch a glimpse of her, and he saw nothing but the swamp. He was filled with elevation. He had worn her out, and any moment, as soon as he rounded this tree he would have her, her would. . . .
Languorously perched on a hummock, her paws drooped over the edge, a silver fox stared at him. She sat there like a snow drift, placid and serene. For one second, Matthew considered asking whether the fox had seen a young woman pass this way, but Vera spoke before he could say anything.
"What have you done with the boy?" she asked. "I'm afraid you've lost him."
Matthew stood there, his chest heaving, overcome with disappointment at this unexpected conclusion. He should be wrestling the nymph, her laughter filling the swamp like a company of bells. "What do you mean? I haven't done anything with the boy."
"Precisely," the fox said. "I'm sorry, but we'll have to go back." She got up, placed her front paws before her, and stretched. Her back rippled from one end to another. She padded past the satyr and into the water, which came almost to her chest. "Come on," she urged. "We haven't got all day."
Matthew was dumbfounded. Where was the nymph? And how did the fox know about the boy? As he calmed, as his breathing returned to normal, his delusion hit him. There had been no nymph. He had run madly through the swamp, never looking back, and the boy, who had been thrashing after him, was now lost. He had left the boy behind. He cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted "Derin!" but fragmented syllables came back at him, an accusation.
"I don't think he can hear you," the fox said. "If my guess is correct, he's quite a ways back. I thought he'd catch up." As though there were nothing abnormal in her presence, Vera surged through the water. Her head was held high, and water rippled backwards making an inverted V.
"Now wait just a minute," the satyr said. "You?" he asked incredulously. "Was it you?"
The fox looked back over her shoulder and paused for a moment. "My name is Vera," she said, "at your service."
* * *
This seems like a nice point to pause, doesn't it?