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Keeper Of Souls
Loneliness. Lottie had a love/hate relationship with the feeling. She despised every second spent by herself, and yet she couldn’t endure the company of others without feeling her eyes prickle with tears. The more she forced herself to be with others, the greater her loneliness became. The way they laughed, and hugged, like everything was okay, pulled Lottie farther and farther away. Before she realized anything had changed, Lottie was on the other side of a glass panel, watching life play out before her, as if on a TV screen.
She would sit at night waiting for the tears that never came, watching her dull, empty reflection in the mirror. To Lottie, it seemed that all of the things that had once made her beautiful had drained away. Physically, she looked the same, long tangles of golden hair reaching her hips, round face, slender build…Yet there were slight differences. The rosy color in her cheeks had trickled away, leaving her pale and without contour, her features faded in. Mostly, it was her eyes, the enthusiasm that had once lit them like blue fire had vanished. They were guarded, and sad, so thick with these treacherous thoughts and feelings that they had taken on the appearance of a gray, foggy day. Impenetrable.
Yet despite all of that, there Lottie sat, watching the sunrise. No voices. No people. Truly alone.
Lottie didn’t want to be alone anymore.
The sun radiated a fan of deep royal gold across the landscape, casting long shadows behind the world it sheeted. Lottie sat alone, her legs dangling over the place where the gravely ground dropped away, positioned so close to the edge that the dirt and weeds disappeared, leaving her suspended - in her own eyes - over the world. Lottie held meditatively still, staring blankly at the hills that rolled before her and the abundance of scrub oak speckling her, view capped by the endless, blue sky above. She let it paint her vision, focusing on nothing but the picture as a whole.
There was a tug at her hair. Lottie shifted, ignoring the slight discomfort. Ants crawled up her arms, tickling her skin. She liked to pretend that she was their playground.
A slight buzzing filled the air, and images of tiny wings spasming filled her mind. Lottie turned to look at the humming bird.
At first, Lottie didn’t see anything at all. Then her eyes focused on the silhouette of a tiny person, suspended in the air, pine needle limbs dangling from an itty body. Lottie stifled a gasp of surprise. A sound like Christmas bells sounded from the tiny person; it was laughter. It fluttered in closer and wrapped hands the size of dandelion seeds around a few strands of Lottie’s hair, pulling with all of its strength.
Slowly, Lottie pulled herself to her feet. The little person was no longer in the sun, and as her eyes adjusted, Lottie recognized the tiny thing as a fairy. Her skin glowed golden in the rising light, with just a hint of pale viridian. A halo of dandelion fluff adorned her head; tiny purple flowers winding their way around her body. Flapping furiously at her back were a pair of translucent, veined wings that resembled maple leaves.
Lottie smiled at the fairy, no longer afraid. The fairy smiled back, rose petal lips resting in a permanent, upturned curve as she tugged at Lottie’s hair. Without resistance, Lottie followed the fairy down the crevice into a maze of scrub oak that wound deeper and deeper into what could only be described as a scrub oak forest.
As they wandered, the trees grew taller, casting playful patterns all over Lottie’s arms. She smiled to herself, chasing the fairy to where the trees grew so thick the sun was almost completely blotted out.
At long last, the fairy stopped. Lottie watched her flutter in place, her poor little face looking exhausted, but managing to retain that natural grin. She let out a cry so soft Lottie could hardly hear it. There was silence. Then, all at once, something started to happen. The leaves on the trees began to twitch and dance, as one by one, they tumbled off the branches, spreading thin wings and flying over to Lottie and her fairy, greeting them.
The soft pad of feet tickled Lottie’s scalp. At least five fairies had latched onto Lottie’s head, pulling at her hair and giggling with that bell-like sound. A few had perched on her shoulder, tugging at her earlobes, or resting in the curve between her shoulder and neck. Lottie held out her hand, a pretty little fairy girl landed delicately on her middle finger, as a butterfly might, spreading her wings for Lottie to see.
Lottie laughed. She couldn’t explain why. Actually, she couldn’t explain any of this at all. It didn’t matter. Not now. Not here. Not when it could all slip away at any moment.
The fairy who had first found Lottie dangled half a foot from her face, between her brows. Lottie felt cross-eyed. A smile split the fairy’s face. She waved a tiny hand toward herself twice before flittering farther into the forest.
The other fairies rose off of Lottie’s body, surrounding her in a cloud of wings. She followed.
Lottie’s fairy was seated on the branch of a tall, twisting oak, which spiraled and twisted far into the sky above. An image from a children’s story book. The trunk of the tree was wider than the dresser in Lottie’s bedroom.
Lottie’s fairy gave another soft, high pitched call, followed by the chirping of the other fairies who had once again settled on Lottie.
The tree began to whine, and shiver, creaking as the spiraling trunk unraveled, the branches above spinning like a carousel, Lottie’s fairy riding one of the branches. Any other day, this might have seemed unreal, a dream even. But there was something about this place, the feel of the dirt beneath her shoes, or the pin prick fingers of the fairies, that assured her that this was a place of such imagery and wonder that even her imagination couldn’t conjure up a world so beautiful.
The tree had unraveled into something that resembled a long, spindly cape pulled straight into the air. At the base of the tree stood a man. Though he may have once been tall, he was now crumbled with age, void of the beauty that cloaked everything else. His skin resembled a tea stained napkin, crumpled and thrown away. Veins spider webbed across his face, hidden in part by the sagging, deflated balloon-like quality of his cheeks. Thin puffs of white and grey hair sprouted from his head, hardly concealing the sun spotted scalp.
Lottie’s first instinct was to run from the terrifying man. His eyes were predatorial, studying her intently. The fairies had once again left her, and now sat perched on the old man’s limbs, and practically hairless head, chirping and chattering away.
His eyes seemed to soften. “They like you,” He said in a slow, rumbling voice, like boulders grating together.
Lottie was at a loss for words.
“I am the father of the forest. They tell me your name is Charlotte,” he nodded to the fairies.
“Lottie,” she corrected.
Father Forest smiled at her kindly. “Lottie it is then.”
It was then that Lottie noticed something else. Around Father Forest’s neck hung a necklace of what appeared to be hair. Strands of blonde, brunette, black and red were all woven together into a colorful rope. Lottie tried not to look startled. “Where am I?” she asked Father Forest.
His laugh was accompanied by the bell like ring of fairy laughter. “A place that only the truly lost can discover.” He turned to Lottie’s fairy, who was still seated on the branch. “Lilac, why don’t you and the others entertain Lottie for the remainder of the day?”
Lilac nodded furiously, grinning. At that, she and the others returned to Lottie’s shoulders, clinging to the fabric of her shirt ferociously. Lottie watched as Father Forest returned to his tree, and it slowly began to wind its way around his cloaked body.
The fabric of her dress pulled tightly against her body as Lottie realized, with fascination, that the fairies were tugging up, their wings flapping viciously. Lottie’s feet felt light on the ground, her tip toes hardly grazing the soil. Within moments she was off the ground, slowly rising above the trees. Her head peaked above the canopy, encountering a never ending carpet of red and orange leaves, stretching out as far as Lottie’s eyes could see. The sun had risen high above the earth, leading the world into mid-morning.
The fairies raised Lottie high above the trees, spinning her in circles until she felt dizzy. Warm fingers of fall air combed her hair, whipping long strands away from her face. This place, these people, were a dream come true.
The sunshine pulled a deeply hidden tumble of genuine laughter from somewhere dark inside of her. The smile on her lips was not plastic or forced. It was real, and for the first time in a long time, it felt easy and natural.
The urge to cry or scream was gone. The thick, hazy cloud that had hovered over her head for so long had finally vanished. Everything looked so clear and vivid. Real.
The fairies set Lottie down by a clear creek, the grassy sides caving into shockingly reflective water. The scent of sweet rain sifted up from the soft grass onto which she collapsed, threading it through her fingers like a child.
Lottie’s fairy fluttered over, grasping a flower larger than she was, between her hands. Lottie took the flower, smiling in thanks, and took a long, girlish sniff, her eyes closed and a pleasant sigh flowed from her lips.
The fairies had settled in her hair again, pulling and twisting it into what Lottie assumed were braids. The feel of fingers in her hair brought back the memories of childhood, potent as the flower she held. Her fingers worked of their own accord, sending petals drifting to a grassy grave.
Lottie’s mind seemed to form a thick glaze over the unpleasant things, frosting them over so quickly that she could no longer recognize them. Suddenly, she was no longer interested in thoughts at all, but rather a happy little cricket scaling her leg.
Lottie trapped it between her fingers, gazing gleefully. It wasn’t until that moment that Lottie noticed that she was humming, a spontaneous tune that she made up as she went. The hum transformed into a song about the flowers.
And so the day went on, the sun rising, peaking, and beginning it’s slow decent. In the golden light, Lottie spun carelessly in circles, the fairies rotating in rings around her as she danced to her own music, amplified by the cheerful song of the fairies.
At long last she collapsed onto her back, feeling the wetness of the grass seep into her dress. The fairies played on her stomach.
A deep chuckle sounded from behind Lottie. She didn’t jump, that voice could only belong to one person.
“Good evening, Father Forest,” Lottie said, smiling.
“Hello, Lottie. Did you have a good day?”
“The best day of my life, “ She said, sitting up. “This place is just so . . . magical. I love the way it makes me feel.” Even Lottie’s voice sounded different to her own ears. Lighter somehow.
A sad smile crept across Father Forest’s old face. “It’s nearing time to go home Lottie.”
An electric shock yanked Lottie to the present. “Go home?” The thought had never crossed her mind, it was preposterous. Why would she ever go back to that . . . that torture when she felt so weightless, and genuinely happy here? I don’t want to go home . . . A childish tear ran down Lottie’s cheek.
Father Forest swept it away with his thumb. “Unless you don’t want to leave, that is.” He was looking at Lottie, concern gleaming in his eyes. “I thought you would want to g-“
“No!” Lottie cut him off. “Please don’t make me leave! I want to stay here . . . Please don’t make me go!” Lottie begged, beginning to cry again as the thoughts of being alone flooded her mind. She could feel the hopeless emptiness gnawing at her insides, fighting to take back her mind. “I don’t want to be lonely anymore. “
Father Forest smiled. “No one wants to be alone, child.” From somewhere inside his cloak, Father Forest produced a rusted pair of gardening shears, burning like fire under the almost gone light. He handed them to Lottie, who looked at him confused. “If you want to stay here, you must cut your hair.” He said simply. He offered no further explanation.
Lottie didn’t need one. The shears were heavy in her hands. Lottie gathered her hair into a low pony at the nape of her neck, and hastily fit the rope of hair between the blades. The light was almost gone. She only hesitated for a moment, her heart twanging at the thought of giving up her beloved hair. With one deep breath Lottie yanked the handles together, the metal squealing as the pony fell in two, resting long and dark at her side.
Father Forest curled his hands around the hair. In that instant, the sun faded away. A chill settled over the meadow.
Lottie was curled around a tree branch, gripping the wet, rain sprinkled leaves for support as her vision blurred. Through her unfocused, tear ridden eyes, Lottie could make out the form of her body, laying limp on the ridge that she’d perched upon earlier that day. A smile forced it’s way over her lips. The wind blew, dragging the tips of her newly shortened hair over the back of her neck, tickling her shoulders and turning her unshed tears cold.
The body’s hair was fanned out like the setting sun, dusted with soil. Ants crawled over the body, playing on its arms and legs. The beam of the police man’s flashlight travelled over the body, washing its deflated skin in white.
Lottie’s mom was there as well, great sobs sending waves through the silent night air. Makeup ran down her face as she flung herself at Lottie’s body, shaking it’s shoulders. “My baby!” She wailed, the words scratchy and broken, almost incomprehendable. The body’s head rolled back and forth with the violence of Lottie’s mother’s tremors. “My baby, my baby . . .” Her words dissolved into a fit of shallow gasps and heavy tears, shimmering in the white light as they ran over Lottie’s body.
One of the policemen pulled Lottie’s mother off the body, towing her protesting form away.
A smile fit for the Cheshire cat was plastered across her face. “Mom!” Lottie screamed from the branch, watching her mother disappear, “Mom! I’m right here! I’m ok!” The words were inaudible, a faint, tumbling giggle, resembling the cheerful ring of Christmas bells. “Mom!” She screamed again, desperately, her tiny body shaking so violently that the leaves she grasped shivered.
As her frustration grew, so did the smile, to the point that her cheeks burned, and dry lips split. She fought to wipe it away with her sadness, and tears, and yet, to her dismay the tears were once again locked in her eyes.
“What did her in?” One of the cops asked softly. “She hasn’t sustained any injuries, and she appears to have been healthy.”
The medic nodded grimly. “She was perfectly healthy,” he agreed. “There’s nothing wrong with her. It looks as though she just stopped breathing, like she had just given up.”
Lottie stared into the distorted image thrown at her from the surface of a dangling raindrop. The only indicator of her pain and desperation was the sadness smoldering behind her eyes, and even that was subdued, almost undetectable in the shadow of the brilliant, forced smile that monopolized her face. It was permanent, an unmoving feature, forever frozen on her lips. Lottie’s exterior had become a joyfully shimmering shell, mirroring that of every other fairy, all of the imperfections that made her Lottie trapped beneath the surface.
The medic didn’t get it. He never would. The only thing Lottie had “given up” was her soul.