The Test
A story based on two illustrations by Melissa Findley: Mistletoe and Attending the Crow King.
2008-07-03
Mistletoe doesn't grow in Alaska, was the first thing Bjorn thought when he'd fought his way through the snowy tangle of undergrowth and found the horned man.

For that matter, the trees were all wrong, and the snow was too wet. That was what told him that it was a dream, not so much the man who waited, sans shirt, at the base of the tree and watched him with lightless eyes.

It was a relief to know, and Bjorn could relax. He was safely in bed with Jenny in the tiny loft above her cabin, dreaming about devastatingly handsome, dark haired men with tree tattoos and mistletoe in their antlers. "I'm not gay," he told no one in particular.

No smile touched that mouth. "You are not," he agreed - and it was unspoken, but still heard. "Your gift weighs on you."

Was that where his subconscious was trying to go with him? Bjorn scowled. "It's a curse, not a gift," he said firmly.

The antlered man was abruptly standing, without having to go through the awkward motions of getting up. He smelled like magic. "It ought to be a gift," he said firmly. "It has all the flavor of a gift, but you have none of the control."

"Why isn't this Alaska?" Bjorn asked. "The trees aren't right."

It was a holiday postcard - all fluffy white snow and big deciduous trees, and while the man circled Bjorn curiously, a picturesque cardinal came and landed in his antlers.

"This is where I live," the antlered man said. Something about the way he said it made him sound very old, in contrast to his youthful body. "You can't expect me to pick up and go to Alaska at any old time, and neither can she."

He straightened, pointed a stiff-fingered hand at Bjorn and said, "Change."

Something pulled inside of him, tugging at sleeping things and sending fingers of energy under his skin, but it dissipated almost at once. The man's face darkened. "Change," he said again, and this time there was more power to it; it deafened Bjorn without volume, and made him clap useless hands over his ears.

"I can't," he said helplessly - he would have if he could, if only to stop the stinging energy from burning beneath his skin. "It is winter."

The man stopped, blinked in surprise, and the discomfort vanished. "Then go to summer," he said, and he snapped his fingers with authority.

There was none of the fluidity so common in dreams, no transition, no walking through houses that weren't quite childhood homes or opening doors, Bjorn was simply elsewhere without so much as a blink of his eyes.

The man before him was different and the same, all at once. Instead of antlers, black feathers grew like a crest from behind his ears. He too was dressed only in tight-fitting pants, with no shoes, but it was more fitting here. Bjorn had not felt the cold, in the snowy woods, but he felt the heat now, on a red rock ledge with a setting sun still beating down. The charming cardinal was gone, and instead, perched on a gnarled staff, was an ornery looking crow that seemed to take offense at Bjorn's presence and gave an ear-splitting shriek as he spread his wings.

There were no smiles or kind greetings here, either, but as the crow man opened his mouth to speak, Bjorn felt the bear in him wake. It was summer here, in this dry place by the ocean, and without his own will, his curse uncurled and crept out every nerve. Some years it was slow, taking hours, even, but dreamtime doesn't tick along like waking time, so it was rather suddenly that Bjorn was bear again.

The crow man's face was all surprise, and Bjorn felt some satisfaction that if nothing else, he could catch this strange dream creature off guard. Then he was distracted by the weight on his paws, and the tasty ants that were scurrying along the rock; the man before him held no interest for him.

Bjorn woke with the taste of ants in his mouth - their wiggly legs and crunchy shells somehow appealing to the sluggishly retreating part of him.

"Mmmph," Jenny said beside him, coming awake. The alarm was going off beside the bed. "Turn it off," she said into her pillow.

Bjorn reached over, marveling at his human arm and hand, and hit the snooze button. He slipped out of bed and went downstairs without turning on any lights.

Jenny found him there, two snoozes later, and put her arms around him. "What did you dream about?" she asked.

Bjorn told her; it still had un-dreamlike clarity in his memory and he took great comfort in the little things of reality, like how warm Jenny's hands were, and the whisper of her hair on his skin. The room sprang into reassuring light when Jenny flipped the light switch.

"Who do you think they were?" she asked, as she ground beans for coffee and poured water into the pot. She was so human, so real and grounded, that Bjorn was reluctant to let her go, and followed her around the kitchen like a shadow.

"I don't know," he confessed. He took the coffee grinder from her to clean - in part to keep her from putting it away dirty. "There was something familiar about them. They reminded me of someone."

He thought about their agelessness, their sober expressions, and their endless eyes.

"Someone we know?" Jenny prodded. "Crazy Jack from across the slough?"

Bjorn shook his head, remembering the prickly power he'd felt from each of them... and another memory, faded, came from a much older dream - a dream he'd had before his curse. It had been a woman, with the same unsmiling face and deep eyes - not dark like last night's visitations had been, but pale like a birch tree and just as tall. He paused, coffee grinder in one hand and towel in another. He suddenly remembered the mistletoe man's turn of phrase: "You can't expect me to pick up and go to Alaska at any old time, and neither can she."

She?

Jenny poured him a cup of coffee and pressed it into his hands. "Maybe it was really just a dream," she suggested.

"Maybe..." Bjorn said reluctantly. "But I don't think so."

Jenny stood up on tiptoe and kissed him on the chin. "You just don't want me to get jealous because you got to dream about hot guys all night... I might start thinking you liked boys better than girls."

Bjorn blushed. "I'm not gay!"

"You are not," Jenny agreed, in eerie formal echo of the antlered man's reply. But Bjorn liked the tone of her answer much better. He reached down to kiss her back, and stopped thinking about strange dreams with barefoot men and birds.


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