Swan Lake Part 1

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TITLE: SWAN LAKE, Part I

AUTHOR: Windsinger (AKA Sue Esty)

EMAIL: windsinger@aol.com

RATING: PG-13

CATEGORY: X

KEYWORDS: Casefile, MRS, mild Muldertorture

SPOILERS: Through VS9

ARCHIVE: Two weeks exclusively on VS10, then Gossamer and Ephemeral. Others are fine, though please let me know.

DISCLAIMER: Mulder, Scully and Skinner belong to Chris Carter, 1013 Productions and Fox. No copyright infringement is intended.

SUMMARY: Mulder and Scully travel to Maine to investigate the story of children who have been lost in a strange, wooded valley and return changed.

FEEDBACK: Gratefully accepted.

AUTHOR’S NOTES: Many thanks for Suzanne’s infinite patience (Of course, I’m writing this before she has finished editing Part II so her patience may have given out by now.) Many thanks anyway. Many thanks to all of the VS Production staff for not making me carve this down to fit into one part. Many thanks to the original series (the first few seasons anyway) for continuing to be such an inspiration and bringing such joy into my life. And, yes, there really is a play called The Swan, which was the initial inspiration for this story. Chris Lane, the actor who played ‘the swan’, has my continuing admiration. He is one incredible physical actor (and not bad sans-clothing either). I wish him well in his career, which my friends and I continue to follow in the Washington area with great zeal.

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SWAN LAKE part I

Windsinger (AKA Sue Esty)

TEASER

Sylvan Valley, Maine

Friday, March 21st

“And a handsome young man fell out of this basket, this really big basket, and he was naked?”

“Completely.”

“And your Mom approved?”

“Why not? Mulder, this is the theater. Art.”

“And the audience was made up primarily of middle-aged ladies. I rest my case,” her companion declared with satisfaction.

“Well, he didn’t stay naked all the time. She eventually got him to wear clothes. First little skimpy shorts, then jeans, then –”

“On a swan? Was he a swan or did he just think that he was a swan?”

“Ah… both, I guess. Transformed. A swan caught in a man’s body. I don’t know how….”

“And they never tried to explain it?”

“This wasn’t an X-File, Mulder. That wasn’t the point. It was an allegory.”

“For what?”

“A person caught unexpectedly in a strange world. He was really very confused and very unhappy.”

“And very naked.”

“Mulder… Okay, forget the story. What was amazing was the actor –”

“And just how amazing was he?” her partner and lover asked mischievously, with only the tiniest hint of jealousy. “Was he glad to see you?”

“As a matter of fact he was. Though it was probably just due to the anticipation as he waited under that blanket throughout that long first scene before he actually transformed. No, the really amazing part was his athleticism. The way he moved his neck, his arms, his body as if he really was a swan and his feet, his toes! He could leap onto table tops and counter tops and even onto the top of a refrigerator without any effort at all. And then there were the noises he made with his throat!” She rubbed her own. “It hurt just to listen to him.”

Furtively, Dana cast an eye towards the passenger seat and there he sat rolling his eyes in her direction.

“Forget it.”

“Swan Lake,” he said, suddenly sitting straighter in his seat and looking behind them from where they had come.

“What?”

“Believe it or not there was a sign just back there for Swan Lake.” He hummed. The Twilight Zone theme was barely recognizable.

“Coming up is also the turn off for Sylvan Valley. If there’s time, perhaps I’ll just visit Swan Lake, but if I do, I’m not taking you!”

Deftly, she turned the rental car into a narrow country road. Thick woods, its trees bedecked with just the fuzz of coming leaves sparkling in the spring sunlight, grew right up to the pavement. It was the same sight that had lined the roads since they had left Bangor except for the occasional small town or lonely house.

“Tell me again what we’re doing here? Kidnappings that aren’t kidnapping. One missing woman?”

Mulder didn’t even bother to shrug. Her skepticism was an old and pleasant game.

“Look.”

Scully didn’t need to be told where to look. Suddenly the world dropped away on one side while at the same time it rose sharply on the other. The tall and rugged mountains, a spur of the White Mountains, made a sheer wall to the right of the deep, bowl-shaped valley and Scully stopped the car at the very brink between the two. Impressive, but there was something very odd.

The spread before them was the kind of glorious New England autumn city dwellers drive hours to see. A little past peak but still breathtaking.

“The foliage certainly is an odd color for March,” she said.

“Certainly is, especially since the brochure from the Sylvan Valley Chamber of Commerce states that protection provided by the mountains actually gives the valley a three week head start on spring compared to the rest of the county. The valley should be clothed in all its spring finery.”

“Acid rain? Toxic chemicals? Industrial pollutants?”

“None identified,” he confirmed.

“This is the X-File part?”

“Not entirely.” And his eyes twinkled green in the way that Scully had long before found highly suspicious.

ACT I

The car dropped into the quiet of Sylvan Valley, Maine and towards the village of Happenstance. Mulder drove while his partner directed her analytical mind towards a land unexplainably on its way towards winter rather than spring. Many of the leaves were brown, but as many were yellow and red and orange, and had been fully mature before they had begun to turn. No freshly budded leaves these.

The town boasted one street of a few shops, a county seat, a school, a store front library, two B&B’s and half of dozen well maintained homes that had to be at least a century old. All in all it was as neat and picturesque as any New England town as you could hope for. By its lack of artificial sparkle, however, as well as the fact that it boasted only two gift shops and no Starbucks, it probably saw less than a quarter of the tourist trade of most villages its size.

The sheriff’s office occupied a vacated store next to the library. Abbott Abrams was the sheriff, a youngish man for the job. He leaped to his feet as they entered. His hunger for a more exciting posting was apparent from the way he positively glowed at the appearance of his distinguished guests from Washington.

“I heard you were coming but can’t imagine why you would. Yeah, some kids got lost but all returned on their own and none the worse for a couple of nights in the woods.”

“What about your missing woman?” Mulder inquired politely. Scully noted that her partner was on his best behavior for this case.

“Mrs. Jameson? She hasn’t really been missing long enough to be considered… really missing.”

“Two days, I hear,” Mulder said. “That isn’t cause for alarm? It would be in most places. Has she made a habit of disappearing in the past?”

“Reena? Well, no. Just an extra long hike in the woods now and then.”

“Personal problems? Family problems?”

Abrams took a moment to think about that. “She and her husband haven’t been here all that long, but to the best of my knowledge they’re fine. Husband’s jumpy now but I told him to be patient. Around here, people show up after a couple of days, just like the kids.”

Mulder shifted position just enough to catch Scully’s eye. “So in addition to the children, you’ve had other disappearances?”

The young sheriff twisted uncomfortably in his cracked leather chair. “Like Reena, people wander. Seems to be a town pastime. They come back.”

After a rather significant pause, Mulder checked his notes although Scully knew he had no need to. “A Dr. Hutchinson is not so sure that the missing children had just gotten lost and found their way back on their own. He thinks that they may have been assaulted in some way. He also thinks the missing woman is a sign that there’s someone out there responsible, and that the perpetrator is escalating.”

“I have heard Hutch’s theory but he and his wife are new here as well. Less than a year. They’re a little rattled by our lack of dependence upon the almighty clock. Sure, the town counsel is scheduled to meet every Tuesday, but Wednesday will do as well or next week. They’ll get use to it.”

“Since assault has been mentioned, we’d like to talk to him,” Scully said, rising. “We’d also like to see some of the children just to make sure — as you say — that there’s nothing to it.”

The young sheriff also rose and reached for a photocopied map of the area. There weren’t many roads. “As you wish. I’ll mark on here where Hutch’s home is. It’s also his office. And while you’re gone I’ll pull the files on the cases for these missing children. We did look for them, you know.”

“I have no doubt you did,” Mulder said, at his most agreeable as he took the map. “Can you recommend a place to stay, by the way?”

The sheriff leveled his gaze at the two standing so comfortably close together and made the obvious decision not to ask ‘one bed or two’.

“Either of the B&B’s will do. Missa at the White Horse is a better cook, however — though don’t tell her I said so.”

Once again at their car, both breathed in the fresh, cool air. Neither needed to remark on the distinct tang of fresh fallen leaves, a scent missing in their part of the world since November. Scully’s eyes drifted to the sign for the White Horse B&B. She would have secured their room as they clearly didn’t have many options, but her partner was just as clearly eager to be sniffing about.

“On the trail of Dr. Hutch?”

“You guessed it.” After a pause at the street to check the angle of the sun and thus orient himself east to west, Mulder turned right with confidence. Clearly, he’d committed the map to memory already. They neither passed anyone on the street nor any cars that weren’t parked.

“I’ve heard of laid back towns,” Scully remarked, “but I don’t think this one ever bothered to get up this morning.”

“Or most mornings, if Sheriff Abrams can be believed.”

“You don’t believe him?”

“Oh, I do. He’s being up front with us. He clearly doesn’t believe that there’s a problem.” They had left the sleepy town already and were soon deep in the atypically fall-like forest. “His attitude just raises the hairs on the back of my neck,” he said. “Don’t you find it a little peculiar?”

“I’d like to reserve judgment on that. Not every place has to be as high stress as D.C. This may, in fact, be normal for here.”

Mulder didn’t take his eyes from his driving, for the sun was setting and the deep patches of slanting light and deep shadow made following the narrow leaf-strewn road tricky. She could tell that he was considering her words, however.

“Perhaps. We’ll soon see. The doctor’s a new arrival, the sheriff said. Let’s listen to his point of view.”

As if on cue, the forest opened up, or perhaps one should say, was pushed back by a white frame house of notable size. It had to date from the nineteenth century if not earlier. This was no Victorian beauty with cupolas and gingerbread carving, but its simple lines were pleasantly broken by a wide porch that spanned not only the front but one long side wall. From this porch hung the shingle for Dr. Matthew Hutchinson, family practice.

“A farm house without the farm,” Scully said as she stepped out onto the gravel drive.

“Oh, it’s still there,” Mulder said. “The forest has just taken it back. It doesn’t really take so long.”

“Why let it disappear?”

“This is New England. Rock farming has never been particularly profitable. Still, the early settlers thought this a paradise compared to crowded Europe. When richer lands were discovered out West, however, more than a few abandoned the black flies and long winters for something better.” Underneath his wrinkled brow, Mulder’s New England-bred eyes solemnly scanned the woods beyond the farmhouse. “There’s more than fields that the woods have taken into themselves. There are stone fences, roads, chimneys, outhouses, anything that Man in his arrogance believes that he built to last.”

He felt a touch on his hand, skin to skin. It sent a warm flush up his arm.

“Is my partner waxing poetic?”

The solemnity left his face and there was sweetness in his smile. “From time to time. But I guess now’s not the time. I see a face at the door. The sheriff must have forewarned the good doctor.”

The good doctor was of a goodly size as well. Hutchinson was at least six foot three and must have been a linebacker in college, though much of that muscle had softened. His hand dwarfed Scully’s upon their greeting on the wide shaded porch, but he had a gentle touch for all that.

“You’ve come to talk with me about the missing children. Good, good,” he said upon Mulder’s greeting and “A colleague!” he exclaimed after Scully gave him her credentials. “Abbott didn’t tell me.”

“It never came up.”

“That’s not surprising. Well, come in, come in. I have no patients at this time of day.”

It was nearly evening. The front door opened into a wide hallway with a waiting room to the right with about a dozen chairs and the business end of this rural practice in the rooms to the left. He led them past a small desk intended for a nurse or secretary and through a set of glass-paneled double doors to what were clearly living quarters in the back of the house.

A small woman of slender bones and light brown hair met them in a small study. Her handshake was fluttery and brief. Unlike her round and mellow husband, she asked to see their ID.

“I just want to be sure we know who we’re talking to.”

“Not a problem,” Mulder said. “People should be more cautious.”

Hutch joined them then. He’d detoured into his office and returned with a thick set of about a dozen files. Heading for a Lazy-boy, he dropped down and spread the files out across two foot stools. Eagerly Mulder pulled an armchair close by and picked up the first folder.

“Cindy Rivers, age 7,” Hutch summarized. “Her mother watched her head down the path that she took every morning through the woods on her way to school. She never made it. Turned up at her front door two days later at suppertime.”

“Injuries?” Scully asked.

“Not really. Dirty, hungry, tired, some scrapes, some bruises that may not have been there before. The trouble is, she was always a brave, happy little thing. Now she’s — well, not so much timid as private or solitary.”

“After affects from this kind of trauma are to be expected.”

“I agree, only this seems permanent.” Hutch learned back in his lounger, his big soft body heavy and sleepy, but his eyes shone with a passion and vitality that his physical form lacked. “I’m a family doctor. I left my big city HMO practice because I wanted to attend to the whole person, the whole family. I prided myself on thinking that I knew every man, woman and child in this town. But Cindy and the kids like her have me doubting myself.”

“They all show this kind of personality change?”

“A change but not always the same kind. Some open, loving children have become secretive. Sweet kids have turned sly and violent. A few that had brought their parents and teachers little but grief are now as pliant as a parent could wish, too much so in some cases. One set of parents is convinced that their little boy, Mike, is ill with mono or maybe even a brain tumor!” The quiet physician’s hand came down on the arm of his chair with surprising fervor. “These kids cannot have just taken a walk in the woods. Abducted, maybe? I don’t know.” He pulled himself up out of his too soft chair. “Let me get you Mike’s X-rays, Dr. Scully. Maybe you can see something I don’t but I can’t find anything physical.”

When man has scurried back to his office, Scully raised an eyebrow in her partner’s direction. “Abductions, Mulder?”

His hands raised in denial. “The first I’ve heard of it, I swear. I’m sure Dr. Hutchinson is not suggesting that kind of abduction, not the alien kind. I don’t think so either.”

“You don’t?”

“Our extra-terrestrial friends are more circumspect. This is too obvious.”

That relieved a good part of Scully’s concern but that meant that it had to be something else. “Kidnappings, assault — psychological if not sexual. If this is true, we’re lucky that this guy let the kids go.”

“After the damage was done. But what about Mrs. Jameson? She’s an adult and still missing.”

A small sound like a whimper caught their attention. Mrs. Hutchinson, who clearly moved as silently as a field mouse, stood in the doorway to the study, a tray of tea nearly dropping from his hands. Mulder rose in one swift, fluid movement to catch it.

“Are you alright, Mrs. Hutchinson?”

As if unaware of what she was doing, she sat limply down in the chair Scully pushed under her. “Roz, please, as in Rosaline. Sorry, I just heard you mention Reena and it all just came back to me in a rush.”

“You know Reena Jamison then?”

Dr. Hutch had returned, face pale. “Reena’s husband, Richard, and my wife are brother and sister. That makes her our sister-in-law.” As the two agents exchanged glances, the big man shrugged helplessly. “It’s a small community. We moved here together for mutual support knowing how little towns keep to their own. It’s worked out well — until these disappearances. Richard is nearly crazy with worry. He’d be worse if he knew how little the sheriff is doing.”

Which is nothing, Scully thought.

“We’d have Richard here with us, but he wants to stay at his place in case Reena wanders back.”

Scully looked at the thick, new file Hutch held and to the others. “I apologize, but it looks like we’re going to be here a while.”

Two hours later, the last report had been examined and, in Mulder’s case, committed to memory. Wearily, they stood and stretched. Scully lifted a curtain of white eyelet. It was completely dark outside now and that was very dark indeed, considering the lack of city lights and the fact that the moon had not yet risen.

“Dinner?” Dr. Hutch asked, gesturing towards the kitchen. The agents exchanged glances. Each knew what the other was thinking. They didn’t normally socialize while on a case, but it was not as if the Hutchinsons were suspects. There was still doubt that a crime had even been committed. “It’s not fancy but you’re not going to find much better after dark — if anything.”

Having not had anything but soda and pretzels since breakfast, they agreed. An old round table of country oak set with a white cloth and blue and white dishes waited for them in the kitchen. They set down to a noodle and hamburger casserole, succotash and a fruit salad.

“Mrs. Hutchinson, you shouldn’t have gone to this much trouble,” Scully said to the thin, nervous woman. She had been busy in the kitchen all the time that they had been reviewing cases.

“And do what? Pace the floor. Not only the children, but Reena, too. Best to keep busy. Would you like some more tea?”

Scully extended her cup. “If it’s more of the same that I’ve been drinking all evening, yes. What is it? It’s delicious.”

“Green tea with cockleberry juice.” Roz pointed to the dish of strawberries, still showing frost where they had been packed and frozen early the previous summer, and small fresh, dark berries. “The dark ones are cockleberries. They’re kind of a local wild blueberry.”

Scully lifted an eyebrow and caught Mulder’s lips twitch. “I guess I won’t be having any of the fruit salad,” he smiled.

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“Agent Mulder is allergic to strawberries,” she explained to Roz’s puzzled expression, “a fact that he tends to forget from time to time.”

“But he can’t be allergic to beer,” Dr. Hutch remarked, raising his large body from its chair. He reached into the refrigerator and pulled out two plain brown bottles. “I brew it myself. It’s so dark you can eat it with a spoon.”

That got Mulder’s attention. He didn’t drink much — both because of his work and because of family history — and so indulged when he felt he could in carefully monitored amounts of exotic microbrews. Quality rather than quantity.

“I’ll split one with you. I’m not technically on duty, because up to now there’s no crime, but you never know.”

The doctor turned to Scully who was glowering only slightly at her partner. “And you, Dr. Scully.”

“I’ll stick to the tea, thank you. And I had a sudden thought: we don’t have reservations anywhere for tonight. Will the B&B’s be open?”

“They might be,” Roz said, “but you don’t have to go there. Hutch and I would like to offer you the use of our cabin. Richard and Reena were only there last week so it’s clean.”

Both agents opened their mouths to decline, only to be stopped by Hutch. “You might find it useful in your investigation. It’s just around the lake from Richard and Reena’s home.

“Lake?” Mulder asked.

Hutch gestured to the map where they had plotted the location from which every child had disappeared and reappeared. The Jameson home was near the center, on the edge of a small body of water shaped like crescent moon. The agent didn’t need eye contact. Each felt the other stiffen. “That lake. Swan Lake.”

Act II

Friday night/Saturday (March 21st and 22nd)

After dinner, Mulder drove as they followed Dr. Hutch’s white sedan twist and turn like a ghost through the dense woods. Mulder was anything but sleepy. The emotion running through him would have kept him alert even if he had drunk four times the small glass of fine, dark beer he had taken.

After fifteen minutes of careful driving they reached a small frame house. It rose up white from the headlights. They couldn’t see much more of the grounds. There was a screened porch with comfortable rocking chairs, a combination kitchen and living room with a fireplace, a utilitarian bathroom and a king-size bed in the one bedroom. Hutch shrugged. “There’s always the couch,” he offered. “As if you’ll need it,” was implied by the unspoken turn at the end of the sentence.

There not being much of interest in the cabin, the agents followed Hutch back outside as he headed for his car — or so they thought. Instead he moved onto the grass heading away from the cabin. From the feel of the ground under their feet they knew they were heading slightly downhill but that was all. Though the moon had finally risen, it was only a fuzzy spot of gray above a blacker treeline. Dr. Hutch didn’t go far. They stood quietly for a moment waiting for him to speak because he obviously had something to tell them. In that space of silence they heard of gentle ‘Plop’ a few yards ahead in the inky black and then an mournful, unearthly cry. Beside Mulder, Scully shivered.

“And that was?” she asked.

“Loon,” Mulder answered before Dr. Hutch could.

“Very good,” the doctor commended. “Yes, a loon. Quite a few nest here. Lost souls also cry like that or so they say. You won’t see them though. There’s usually a mist over this lake at night.”

“What about swans?” Scully found herself asking.

Barely visible, the big man shrugged. “Now and again. The name, Swan Lake, must come from an earlier time.” Another pause. “I wanted to tell you about another case,” the physician finally began. His voice was hesitant but grew stronger as he spoke.

“Another?” Mulder asked gently, his natural empathy already suspecting something.

“Yeah, Roz.”

“Your wife,” Scully said. “She went missing as well?”

Another shrug. “I’m guessing so. It’s been several months. Sometimes I’m away from home for a night or two. Unlike many of my contemporaries I do make house calls and deliver babies as well though don’t tell my insurance company. It could have happened then. All I know is that she changed. She used to be so outgoing. After we arrived she joined some of the civic and church women’s groups, and helped out with the school computer system. She was a network engineer back in Boston. Not much of that work here but she was happy with the change. She liked being busy.”

The agents both thought about the frail and retiring creature who had served Scully tea. “I gather she doesn’t go out much any more,” Scully said.

“Hardly at all. Even when we need something at the store she wants me to go with her. I don’t know what she does all day. She used to clean a room in ten minutes, now it takes her half the day. She won’t come out here any more either or go outside after dark.” The man’s voice had become thick with emotion as he talked. “Find out what’s going on. The sheriff inquired about you when he heard you were coming. The word is that you’re a little eccentric in your methods but good at this sort of thing.”

The agents exchanged glances. Whatever this sort of thing turned out to be.

“We’ll do our best, Dr. Hutchinson,” Mulder assured the man in his soft voice, the heaviness in it showing that he was not unaffected.

“That’s all I can ask.” Abruptly, the physician turned and headed for his car. “I’ll come out and check on you tomorrow,” he said, and was gone.

Still standing in the dark near the unseen lake, Scully felt the warmth of Mulder’s body press lightly against her back. In response, her seeking hand found his. Both of their palms were chill and damp from the mist and the night.

“We’d better try and get some sleep,” he said.

“‘Try’? I’m exhausted.”

“I don’t know if I’ll manage any. The man seemed to think we’d need checking on.”

They made gentle and brief love that night in the cabin’s king-size bed. It was seldom that they had such remote accommodations and so they could have made all the noise they wanted but neither was in the mood for athleticism. The night seemed to press in on the little cabin and on them. Mulder listened to the loons and other night birds, to the ripples on the shore from the occasional fish, and to the slight rustle from the other night creatures. It was only near morning, when a breeze finally rose to move about the few out-of-season fallen leaves, that he finally slept. When he woke it was full light and Scully’s place at his side was empty and cold. There wasn’t any answer to his call.

Mulder was out the door in twenty seconds in possession of the bare essentials only — suit pants without underwear, zipped but not hooked, and his service weapon. The air had a bite to it and the driveway was crushed stone. Shoes and more clothes might not have been a bad idea. Finally his calls yielded results. Scully’s voice came faintly over the lake. Under the gray sky and the lingering mist, the lake was a sheen of silver, its far bank a dark streak before the smoky mountain reared up behind tall and watchful.

Tearing his eyes from the inspiring height of the mountain, Mulder followed that faint call. He found her in a boathouse, its wood silver gray with age so that it was nearly invisible against the lake. She was inside, intently absorbed with a mound of something covered in a sheet of old sailcloth.

“Find something?” he asked trying to sound nonchalant despite the fright she had given him. It didn’t help that the upper half of his body wore only gooseflesh.

Considering the scare you gave me, this had better be good, he grumbled under his breath.

“I think you can say that I found something,” she said, not taking her eyes from the mound. “It’s the most amazing thing. I found a swan, an injured swan.”

He felt his eyebrows rise. “Like in that play? And you say I’m weird.”

“No, not like in the play. This one is not likely to metamorphose into a handsome young man.” Her eyes crinkled in amusement. “Besides, I have one of those. This is just a swan.” Gently she raised the edge of the sailcloth to reveal a sitting bird, surprisingly large and snowy white. “Isn’t he magnificent!”

Mulder frowned. He remembered when she used that word to refer to particular parts of his anatomy.

All at once the animal’s head pulled out from under his wing, his back came up and his wings reached out until he seemed ten times the size he had been before. The wingspan nearly touched the walls of the shed side to side. The graceful head automatically turned to Mulder and, black eyes glittering, the beast uttered an ear-splitting ‘Caw!’ in challenge. At the same time Mulder leaped back, his bare feet landing onto a patch of particularly sharp gravel. Mesmerized, Scully stayed where she was.

Hopping awkwardly on his traumatized feet, Mulder growled, “He doesn’t look very injured to me.”

“He was holding his wing oddly when I first saw him and he won’t move. This is exactly where I found him.”

“Then maybe it would be best to leave him be. Animals seem to know best when it comes to their own injuries. We should be getting dressed and getting on with the day, anyway. We have people to see and I want some of that homemade bread Roz sent with us.”

“Sorry,” Scully apologized, rising from the dirt floor and brushing off her slacks.” I gave all the bread to Bill.”

“‘Bill’?” Mulder glowered at the alarmed bird whose beak seemed well capable of pecking out his eyes.

“Makes sense, despite the fact that that’s what she named the swan in the play. And don’t worry,” she said lightly as they headed back to the cabin, Mulder limping, “I’m not hungry. You can have my share of the fruit.”

“Which happens to consist mostly of strawberries,” he grumbled.

“Then pick cockleberries. There are bushes of them all around here. You can eat blueberries so you should be able to tolerate them. To be on the safe side, start with just a few.”

He did and they were a lot like a tart blueberry. Odd time of year, though. It didn’t happen to occur to him until later that he had not asked her how she had happened to be outside in the morning dew, investigating old boathouses anyway.

The sun had finally burned through the fog by the time they walked up to the door of the Jameson cabin. Mulder knocked softly, not wanting to wake the man who was probably getting little enough sleep as it was. Richard was awake, however. He came to the door of a second building that was easily as large as the cabin. One could see the relationship between siblings. Like Roz, Richard was lean and dark, with prominent cheekbones and light eyes. At the moment he was also the personification of Misery.

With sympathy, they showed their identification and explained the purpose of their visit.

“I appreciate the help, but there’s not much more I can tell you that I didn’t tell the sheriff. Still,” he gestured to the open door of the outbuilding, “come on it and I’ll tell you what I know. Sorry, I’m in the middle of something I have to finish before the glue sets.”

They followed him inside to be met instantly with the sharp, pleasant scent of freshly cut wood, spiced with that of varnish and glue.

Richard Jameson was an instrument maker and restorer, and clearly a good one. The walls of his workshop were lined with guitars and violins and mandolins, as well as less common instruments such as sitars. There was even one large deep-bodied lute. A new harp lay in pieces on the workbench, its soundbox held in place by huge C-clamps as the glue dried, its pillar half carved. The craftsman had gone to a second bench and continued laying pre-cut pieces of mother-of-pearl into the delicate inlay on the neck of an ancient guitar. It seemed rather like an injured bird itself, as it lay there looking naked without its strings.

“Take your time,” Mulder said, not wanting to disturb the craftsman. “We’ll wait till you’re finished.” Mulder watched the man for a few minutes. Despite his obvious fatigue the man’s fingers moved deftly. Only from time to time did they fumble with the tiny pieces.

It was a pleasure for the two agents to wander around the workshop. Lacquered wood glowed golden in the sunlight. Large windows looked down upon a lake now peaceful in the full light of day. Mallards played in the waters, not a swan or loon in sight.

Scully drifted into a smaller side room. All at once Mulder heard her gasp and quickened his step to reach her side. She was staring at a most remarkable vision. A man’s face, striking and brown and as seamed as a nut, stared out from a ring of brilliantly golden leaves. The leaves seemed to spring from his downturned mouth. It was a carving of a head, life size, but it was the expression on the face — at once solemn and tortured, with beseeching green eyes — that made one expect to hear the man speak.

Or groan.

Mulder’s heart had gone racing in his chest at his first sight of the carving. Scully’s breath was still coming in small puffs as she approached it for a better look.

“That’s real gold leaf on the leaves if I’m not mistaken. There’s no substitute for that kind of glorious shine.”

“It’s the man…” Mulder said. “It’s a version of the Green Man, but not like most.”

“Not like any I’ve seen. He seems so… troubled.”

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At that moment a form rose up behind them and uncharacteristically both agents flinched.

“I’m finished for now,” a weary Richard said. “Let’s go to the house to talk.”

The house had been built about the same time as the Hutchinson’s and in the same style, but there all resemblance ceased. The Jameson’s house was decorated in the way one would expect for a place where two such artists lived. Everywhere there were rich colors and the gleam of wood — floor, furniture, cabinets, beams on the ceiling and objects on the walls and tables, most of it handmade. While Richard was gone to wash his hands and change his sawdust-covered shirt, the partners examined the carvings with interest. There was nothing else like the man in the gold leaf mask, but there were other Green Men.

“These are more traditional,” Scully said, examining two carvings, expressionless male face whose beards and hair consisted of thick masses of grape leaves and vines.

“Yes, very Bacchus-like, similar to those you can find on the signs of every other English pub in Britain.”

“Which you would know, I’m sure, having gone school there. Took a tour on the weekends did you?”

A crooked smile graced his lips. “Only the first two semesters. First time away from home and all that. As far as most images of the Green Man heads go, they’re Gothic interpretations of the Roman version. An image of plenty, where Man rules supreme over nature. Our Troubled Man behind the gold leaf seems to be inspired by ones I’ve seen photographs of — carvings on the choir of Norwich, early fifteenth century. Almost all of the images harken back to the Green Man’s far older pre-Christian antecedent of the disembodied oracle heads of pagan Celtic sects, such as the Druids. Tree worship — Nature as supreme, not Man.” Mulder sighed. “Of course, then man invented the heavy plow and within generations almost all nature worship ceased in Europe. Man could too easily scar the earth. He was less the slave to the lay of the land and the fickleness of the seasons. Note that in North America where the tribes never invented the heavy plow, nature worship continued.”

“Why thank you, Professor Mulder,” Scully teased.

The edges of Mulder’s mouth turned up just bit. “Sorry, I always found mythology fascinating.”

Scully went back to studying the more pedestrian Green Man carvings. “Odd that these heads have no life and our Troubled Man in the workroom looks ready to –”

“– Shall we talk now?” Jameson’s voice interrupted from behind them, a clear note of disapproval in his voice. “I have repairs I’ve promised to get out. Besides, it helps to keep busy.”

“We’re only trying to help,” Mulder said as he and Scully sat down on chairs across from where the craftsman sat on a couch cushioned in red and black tartan. The man didn’t look angry any more, only weary to the point of exhaustion.

“What do you want to know?”

“Only what you told the sheriff… but use different words, as if you were telling it for the first time.”

Richard nodded. He could see the sense in that. “Very well, only there’s not much to tell. I was working in my shop three days ago. It was barely sun-up, but we’re early risers. Reena came to tell me that she was going to take a walk. She does that from time to time. She collects wild flowers and herbs to dry, sometimes mushrooms. I didn’t think anything about her being gone until it was nearly dinnertime and she hadn’t returned. That’s all I know.”

“Any familiar places she might have gone? She could have sprained an ankle.”

“Do you think that I didn’t look in all those places first? Not a sign of her or anyone.”

The regular questions followed: What was her mood? Had she been sick? What had she been wearing? Was she carrying anything?

She had seemed the same as always, maybe a little ‘down’. People get like that. No, she hadn’t been sick, but wasn’t sleeping well. She had been wearing jeans, hiking boots and a blue sweater. She had been wearing her orange daypack, as always, so she would have a way to carry water, some fruit, and what she collected.

“Why ‘down’? Why not sleeping well?” Scully asked.

Richard shrugged. “Reena worked for one of the big art museums before we left Boston. Though she wanted to get out of the rat race, having no regular employment has been stressful. She threw herself into fixing up the cabin and once that was done, then what?”

“Her art?” Mulder suggested, glancing meaningfully at a Green Man mask with a grape leaf beard that hung on the wall above their heads.

Visibly perturbed, the craftsman frowned. “That’s just it – art, not craft. She had to be inspired. She couldn’t find satisfaction in the work itself. Those,” he gestured to lifeless Green Men about them, “sell well at the upscale craft shows but she wasn’t inspired any more and hasn’t done a new one in months.”

“There’s one in the woodshop,” Mulder mentioned meaningfully. “It’s not like these and looks new. I’d say she was sufficiently inspired when she created that. In fact, it looks as if she carved from life.”

Richard visibly stiffened. “No, not that one,” he blurted. “I never met anyone like that. Neither has she. When you have the kind of incredible imagination Reena has, you don’t need a model.”

“Still,” Mulder continued, “can you explain the dramatic change in style? Can it reflect some event –”

“You’re just like the others!” Richard shouted, leaping up. “Abrams and the fire chief and the others. Talk and questions. Why aren’t you out there looking for her?”

“We will,” and Mulder pulled a piece of folded paper from his pocket. “Sheriff Abrams even gave us a map. If you will mark on here her favorite walks, her favorite places, we’ll start today.”

Somewhat appeased, the distraught husband marked half a dozen routes on the map and within five minutes they were out of the comfortably-decorated house.

Scully pulled a bottle of cold tea from the back seat of their car. “Mr. Jameson certainly changed the subject abruptly. I don’t think he wanted to talk about our Troubled Man.”

“No, he didn’t,” Mulder agreed, “but I don’t want to pressure him about it just at the moment. Ripping open scabs is not my idea of fun. We’ve broached the subject, he must know that we’ll come back to it. Maybe tomorrow. I think we need to give him time to come to grips with the reality that there might be another person involved. A man. A real living, breathing man, her inspiration; not just imagination.”

“Which as we know is more often the case than not with missing husbands and wives,” Scully sighed.

“Only, what woman would run away with the man in that particular carving? As you said, that man has troubles. He doesn’t appear to be the yearning-for-love type. If she went away with him, I doubt it was planned, nor by choice.”

“Oh, I don’t know…” Scully mused, eyes warm on her own lover. “A man with troubles can be very attractive.”

Mulder felt himself flush. “I guess you would know.”

“I certainly would,” she smiled and finished the bottle of tea with a flourish and pulled out a second. “Where to now?” she asked.

“It’s Saturday. We’re going to go visit some of the returned children. I don’t know if it’s related but we mustn’t forget them. They suffered some trauma in the woods and I doubt that they stayed away as along as they did by choice.”

ACT III

Saturday, March 22nd

From house to house they went during the late morning and early afternoon. During that time, a thick canopy of gray clouds gradually replaced the golden sunlight. Because Reena Jameson’s disappearance was well known, the parents of the children no longer lost were surprisingly cooperative. It was mid-afternoon by the time they pulled into the gravel parking spot beside the Hutchinson cabin. Mulder carried in some groceries while Scully cleared empty tea bottles out of the back of the car. “I’d be willing to try some of that,” he said. “Roz Hutchinson gave you those, right?”

“Sorry,” Scully replied as she deposited the last bottle in the recycling bag. “All gone. It’s really delicious stuff.”

“I guess I know who’s going to be up all night going to the bathroom.”

Giving him a look followed by a suggestive pat on the backside as she passed him, Scully sallied out the door of the cabin. Mulder would have been heartened by the gesture if he did not know where she was going. To see the swan, of course.

After putting away the few groceries, Mulder changed into jeans, a long sleeve shirt, and the oldest pair of athletic shoes he had brought. After all, they didn’t plan on any more visits that day and it was obvious that nothing was happening in Sylvan Valley that evening. The laptop sat on the kitchen table but Mulder felt no desire to type up notes. Scully had her own system and did the bulk of that kind of work and she’d be doing that now, if she weren’t attending to the damn swan.

On the steps of the porch he paused to look down at the lake. One should have been able to see it clearly as it was daytime and there was no fog, but it was still little more that a flat silver surface beneath the slate sky.

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Scully was crouched in the boathouse where she had been in the morning, observing the swan. She’d pulled the sailcloth aside. The impressive bird lay inert with its head resting on its back. At least it was until Mulder stepped into the dilapidated shed. In an instant its head flew up, its back raised, the huge, glorious wings spread out, and the bird emitted a loud challenge sounding like the caw of a crow produced by a bassoon.

“Mulder! You’re upsetting him!”

“Upsetting ‘him’? I didn’t do anything.”

They both scuttled outside though they could still hear the wild creature’s loud protests.

“Something leads me to believe that that Bill doesn’t like me.”

“Maybe because he can sense that you don’t like him?”

Mulder waited for the twinkle in the eye, the twitch of the lip but none came. Scully wasn’t joking. He could tell a futile argument when he saw one and let the matter drop. “I need some exercise. I’m going to walk up to one of Reena’s favorite haunts. Want to come?”

She did consider it, he’d give her that. “If it’s alright with you I’d rather not. I want to go on line and see what information there is about –”

“–swans?”

Again the hairy eyeball. “Yes,” she admitted, “as well as to see if there is anything new on the affects of trauma on child behavior. Those children we saw today weren’t abnormal.”

“That’s not the point. Their parents and their doctor clearly feel that they’re abnormal on in terms of their behavior before their experience in the woods.” He started towards the woods.

“Maybe I should go. Promise — no detours, no getting lost.”

He paused, not sure that he liked the fact that she only thought she should go because she didn’t think he could take care of himself. “Scully, this is the not the wilderness. No old growth forest. This was all fields less than a century ago. I’m just going up the spring trail and then coming back. I’ll be back in two hours, tops. Besides, I have junior here,” and he showed her the smaller of his service weapons that he wore in a shoulder harness. “And I have the map Hutch gave us. What could happen?”

It was a pleasant walk. The woods were cool and calmly dim, and his resentment of the swan that kept Scully from joining him did not last long. He had spent too many of his early years alone not to feel at home in his own company. According to the map, the Odette trail wound from the lake back and forth up and between a break in the Cahoute Mountain where a spring gushed forth sweet, naturally carbonated water even in the middle of winter.

But when would winter be in this upside-down place where fall reigned when it should have been spring? What the map didn’t say was that the trail followed an old logging area that had been replanted by the lumber people in softwoods. All around him the hundreds of identical straight trunks of conifers rose into the air, planted so close together that the only remaining branches were forty feet in the air. His own feet made no noise on the springy needle-thick trail. Still, there were deciduous trees close enough so that when the breeze blew, their out-of-season dry leaves shivered with a bright sound like so many tiny wind chimes. Every once in a while he heard a rustle not caused by the wind. Some animal.

His thoughts went to the missing woman. Reena came here to think her private thoughts. Of what? Replaying romantic stories of Robin Hood? Unlikely. Did the face of her Green Men peer at her from behind the thick, shiny leaves of the rhododendrons that grew everywhere in this shady place? Or did she simply walk, allowing her artist eyes and brain to glory in the possibilities of curve and color?

A branch cracked so close by that Mulder felt his heart leap and hairs on the back of his neck rose. He had heard gunshots less loud. Automatically, he turned towards the sound. Above him on a little rise he saw a movement, but then it was gone. Another animal? Perhaps, but a larger one. Alert and wishing that he had brought his standard service weapon, he moved on.

There were no additional odd noises during the remainder of his walk. He heard the spring before he saw it, the sparkling rush of its waters. It must have created a small waterfall. Ahead was a great dark space, a cleft in the mountain eternally deep in shadow. All at once one of those freak coincidences happened. A break formed in the otherwise solidly overcast sky and the slanting rays of the nearly setting sun shot through the pattern of pencil-straight trunks of the softwood forest. The glade turned into something molten with gold, something magical. Normally seeing no light and damp from the spring, the deep combe was thick with huge ferns and moss. Ahead of him a ribbon of white water fell from a shelf of rock a few feet above his head in the very center of the cleft. He climbed the short, steep bank through slanting, golden sunbeams. On the top of the shelf was a pool, a dark oval perfectly mirroring the much lighter sky behind his right shoulder. He found himself staring into the pool, only vaguely remembering to wonder if the missing woman also came to this enchanted place and how often.

There was a movement in the water then, though not ‘in’ the water — a movement of an image in the water. His head jerked up and to the right in time to catch a flash of reddish brown on the slight rise above him, where a shaft of golden sun glittered.

“Scully?” It was the same color as her hair. Perhaps she had followed him after all. “Scully, I’m here.”

There was no answer.

He reached for the small revolver. It felt tiny and nearly useless in his hand. Feeling slightly foolish, he called, “FBI. Come out!” His words that usually carried well seemed to get sucked into the loam of the dark, rich mountainside.

But something heard him. The light shifted again near the spot where he had seen the rusty shade of red. There it was again. His brow creased as he struggled to make out the shape that was man-size but not human in form.

His gun went back into his holster as he sighed. A deer stood there, a doe, and a good sized one. It stepped out of the brush and regarded him solemnly with huge, unblinking brown eyes. She was not the least afraid. Her head was up; her long soft ears flickered back and forth as if listening.

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“Aren’t you a brash little thing,” he said, feeling his lips curve into a smile, “and beautiful.”

She turned then, without hurrying. At the same time a bit of breeze sent a puff of sweet air in his direction, from off the ridge where she stood. And it was sweet. His nostrils flared to catch every molecule. There were cockleberry bushes everywhere; they had to be the cause. Still, his lungs held onto the breath. The rush was as startling as it was unexpected. His heart quickened. A flush went up his skin and into his face. His head felt oddly light.

A man’s body can embarrass him from time to time; he’s a highly visual animal, after all. But scents will do it as well. The billion dollar perfume industry can’t be all hype. His loins twitched as if there were smoldering coals down there that someone was trying very hard to stoke into flame.

But there was no one, just the doe who still stood on the dark hill above him, flashing her light-colored rump in his face.

“You little flirt,” he called to her, not really believing that she was the cause.

In answer she merely looked over her shoulder at him, her little white tail flickering.

There is an almost undeniable urge in humans to touch wild things. There’s the challenge, of course, just to get close but also the desire to get that close to something so alien. Mulder wasn’t ashamed to admit it. He desired to run his hand along the doe’s smooth coat of coarse hair, but more than anything he wanted to feel the hard, slim muscles vibrating with life and a little fear under his hand. Standing there as if waiting for him, he could almost believe that she wanted it as well. Knowing it was hopeless, he took a step forward as softly as possible. She didn’t move. He took another, unable to keep the ground cover from rustling. She still didn’t move. Before he knew it he was moving carefully, but unerringly, towards the rise where she stood. She merely stepped about in a circle, her eyes ever on him, as if impatient.

“Damn, not just a flirt but a vixen,” he whispered as he began to climb. The slope was so steep that he found himself using hands as well as feet. His shoes slipped from time to time on the damp leaves and still she stood her ground. He could see her eyelashes now, long and curled, the perfection of her impossibly tiny hooves, the soft muzzle. He could almost feel the warmth of her breath in his palm. Only when he came within ten feet did she move, taking two leaps that defied gravity in their effortless ease.

As if they were tied by an invisible string, she remained just that far away, no closer, no farther. Mulder didn’t really think he would catch her but it was a fun game, like playing tag with a much older sibling who taunted you and always stayed just out of reach. To play with such a beautiful and wild creature was a child’s dream and Mulder had never entirely given up his childhood dreams, and hoped that he never would.

Up this slope and that they went, and down again. He no longer even tried to keep quiet. When he fell behind, she waited for him, flicking that tail, her rump always in view.

He fell once and just sat there looking at her gazing at him dispassionately with her Loren Bacall eyes from less than five feet away. “Oh, you sexy thing. You must drive the young bucks wild.”

That should have triggered a warning in his mind.

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He had been working on ascending a heavily wooded slope in black shadow when he emerged suddenly into the light. At the top of the slope was a clear space, a meadow. It seemed light only in contrast, for though the sky was still bright, the sun had set.

He was still pulling himself up when he heard a very loud snort. Something large moved restlessly nearby and almost immediately let loose with a tremendous trumpeting bellow. None of this came from the direction where the doe waited.

Mulder straightened up so quickly that he felt suddenly dizzy. He dropped back down, hands on knees. Only a few yards away stood a stag, not just some young buck but a fully mature stag, complete with dark ruff, and he was very angry. His hot breath came out of his flaring nostrils into the cooling air in little puffs like a bull’s. Mulder’s vision was blurred enough that he couldn’t even count the number of menacingly sharp points on buck’s impressive rack. The darkening sky of evening rolled erratically overhead. The stag bellowed again in challenge. Mulder’s limbs felt suddenly as weak as water and his head felt so heavy that he could barely lift it. There was no way he could outrun this thing.

“You damn bitch,” he hissed at the doe.

Her ears softly flicked back and forth, as she looked from him to the stag, and back. He could have sworn that he saw a self-satisfied smirk on her face.

He didn’t really have time to move, his body seemed to be dissolving when it should have been going rigid in preparation for action. Hooves pounded, there was a dark blur, and his body proved all too solid. Pain erupted along his left side. He felt his body leave the earth and propel backwards into black shadow. Down the slope he had climbed for so long he fell, rolling and rolling, scratched by brambles and stabbed by broken twigs and rocks. Pain was everywhere.

He didn’t remember reaching the bottom.

Act IV

Saturday night/the early hours of Sunday, March 22nd and 23rd.

Firelight was so incredibly beautiful, Scully thought as she sat curled in the big comfortable chair before it. She simply stared into the flames. She’d been doing so for what seemed like hours and never tired of the constant change in form and color. The sound, too, like a chorus of whispering spirits, was eerie and at the same time fascinating even though she knew the cause was simply trapped water in the logs escaping as steam. And the heat! It did things to her where it touched her skin. Languid as she was, a part of her shifted restlessly. Where on earth was Mulder? She wanted him home, she wanted him. She wanted to make love to him right here on the rich, thick Indian rug that sat before this glorious fire that, surprisingly, never seemed to need tending.

Her hand went out automatically and found the bowl. Half a dozen of the purple berries went into her mouth. They had bought all those groceries, she should get up and make something for supper, but these would do, and they were so good!

She had never logged onto the Internet to check to see if there was any new trauma studies on children, much less to search for information on the care and feeding of swans. There really wasn’t any need about the second issue. Before sunset she had looked in on him one last time and ‘Bill’ had looked fine. What a beautiful, big fellow he was. He had arched his back and extended his wings for her. Even taken a few steps. Such grace and strength! He’d be fine, he was fine. After leaving him, she’d spied an aluminum pail that looked like something her grandmother might have used and headed out into the woods, still dressed in her better work shoes and suit. Roz Hutchinson had been right about how thickly the cockleberries grew near the lake, and it hadn’t taken Scully long to fill her bucket with the plump, dark fruit. Not having had lunch, she’d eaten her fill during the picking. It had been a pleasant time. The woods were so quiet, so peaceful, and the picking so easy that the berries seemed to fall off into her hand. The time seemed to fly by — yet why was it almost completely dark by the time she returned to the cabin?

The cabin. She must not have looked at it very well the night before. She had had the impression then that it was just a box, filled with inexpensive second-hand furniture. Now it looked to her like a fairy tale cottage. Ivy and Rose of Sharon framed the doors and windows. A path of colored pebbles, smooth from the river, led up to the porch on which clean, white wicker furniture sat accented with colorful pillows. Inside, the air was filled with the scent of rosemary and lavender from the bunches of herbs hanging from the rustic rafters as well as from the scent of the ripe berries she carried. The furniture was rich and lush, covered in chenille throws in jewel tones. The appliances in the kitchen gleamed in the firelight. The fire! It was already burning brightly, just like now. Clever man. Mulder must have set it before he went out. The man must have ulterior motives. If so, she liked his ulterior motives.

It didn’t occur to her to wonder why the fire had not burned down, since Mulder had been gone for hours and so had she. Instead, she kicked off her shoes, sank down into the deepest chair with her bucket of berries, and there she had sat.

Waiting. Waiting and eating.

Her waiting ended, and just at the time when a questing hand into the bucket came up empty. There came a knock at the door of dark polished wood. With anticipation she opened it.

It was now totally dark. A tall figure stood on the porch, the only light coming from the fireplace within.

Reaching out she took his hands and pulled him inside. “Silly, you don’t need to knock. Come on in. Love that shirt.”

He wore a poet shirt, open half way down his chest. When he took her in her arms and pressed his eager lips to hers, the yards and yards of material in the sleeves billowed around them like great white wings.

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* * * * * * * * * * * *

Pain is not a wonderful thing. Oh, sometimes it was nice to be reassured that you weren’t dead, but not when you wake in a night as black as pitch and the damp cold is working into each and every bone of your body. Groaning and swearing would have been a good first move if he hadn’t found himself facing downhill, his face in moss and leaves and pine mulch. There was some of each in his mouth. Mulder spat out what he could but had little spit. It was when he tried to get up or at least turn over that it really, really hurt. Hot tears came to his eyes. Shit. More slowly he stretched individual limbs. Nothing seemed broken but there wasn’t a muscle that wasn’t bruised. The cold wind that blew through his shirt to his skin seemed to be bearing tiny knives. This told him that his jacket had vanished somewhere, his shirt had been nearly torn from his body, and that the fall had tried to do the same to the skin of his arms, chest and back. When he moved his face he felt the tug of some scratches, but not bad. He must have instinctively protected his head with his arms as he fell. Yes, he remembered falling, and landing, and rolling. Especially the landing part. Something had torn then in his left hip, that injury seemed the worst. Agony pierced up and down from that hip when he tried to put weight on the leg.

Finally he was able to roll onto his right side enough to keep his face out of the dirt. Panting, he lay there, frantically thinking of options and more frantically listening for a search party. There had to be a search party. Scully knew where he was headed and he would be way overdue by this time, which he realized by the backlighting of his watch was nearly midnight. But how far had he strayed from the path he had said he would be following? The part of his day since leaving the spring was hazy. Even with his headache — and he did have a killer headache — his head was clearer now. Had he really been playing tag with a deer? That’s what he seemed to remember, but as if in a dream. And there had been a buck, a lowered crown of antlers. Maybe all the damage to his hip didn’t come from the fall.

Somewhere not close but not nearly far enough away, thunder rumbled. It had been overcast since early afternoon. Please, not rain; that he didn’t need. In his condition, in his state of undress, in this weather which would only get colder, hypothermia would have his number.

Light flashed overhead, pale and diffuse, silhouetting the thick interweaving of bushy branches inches from his face. Thunder rumbled louder. His only consolation was that he knew now that he wasn’t blind.

The wind picked up significantly and there came the scent of rain and ozone. Whatever was coming was going to be big. This bush would be no protection. Another flash brought another view of the underside of the bush he had rolled under. Wait! Feeling foolish, he managed to pull his cell phone from his back pocket. When it had gotten so late before, why hadn’t he tried to call? As his cold fingers fumbled with the power button, he grumbled under his breath. With his luck if it hadn’t been damaged by the stag’s attack or in his fall, it would be out of batteries. What a surprise, therefore, when the ghostly green display sprang to life. No service, however. Exasperated, his head fell back into the leaves. His urban counterparts in law enforcement certainly had an easier job in terms of communication. On the other hand, he didn’t have to worry about bears or snakes carrying guns.

Bears… And snakes… Maybe they didn’t carry guns but they had fangs and teeth and claws. He checked for his gun. No gun. That had tumbled free at some point during the fall. Just in case, he had unsnapped the holster during one of the times a noise had startled him, and for some reason had never snapped it again. That was a foolish thing to do. No — a criminally incompetent thing to do.

The breeze brought him another fresh scent of earth and mold and wet and, yes, that sweetness. He knew that scent this time –a cockleberry bush. A flash of lightning revealed the small dark globes in abundance just over his head. Eagerly he reached out and pulled in handfuls. They not only wet his dry mouth but eased his shaky and empty stomach.

He must have become lost in savoring their tangy flavor for far too long, because all at once the lightning was brighter and came more frequently, and the thunder was louder. Wind lashed the tops of the trees. Shaken loose, ripe berries fell onto his face.

He couldn’t stay here. He couldn’t afford to get wet and he would if the rain was much heavier than a drizzle. And it was going to be much more than that.

With an extreme effort that was as much of will as strength, he rolled out from under the bush and under the open sky. He had to see around him to find better shelter.

Already it was colder. Desperation gave him the strength to look beyond the everywhere ache of his body. He was even more dizzy than before, however, in addition to his body aching like a sonofabitch.

With each tracing of white witches’ fingers across the sky, he forced his head to rise so he could take in another point of the compass. On the fourth flash he saw it. He must have actually rolled down that steep hillside and just before the end, a shelf of rock thrust out. There was a darkness under there that seemed about three feet high. Perhaps there would be enough of an overhang to give him shelter from the rain that was surely on its way.

Gritting his teeth he moved forward on his hands and his right knee, dragging his left leg. The distance wasn’t far, less than five yards, which was fortunate because huge, fat drops of rain began to fall before he was half way there. He was only damp by the time he reached the overhang. It was deep enough. He moved farther in and farther yet into the complete blackness. The sound of the rain muted as the stone closed in around him. A cave! He could scarcely believe his luck. If this were like other caves, it would also maintain a rather constant temperature. It wouldn’t be anywhere near comfortably warm but neither would it be perilously cold.

Maybe he wouldn’t die this night after all. At the moment, however, a nearly irresistible desire for warmth and sleep had overtaken him. At least the cave floor was surprisingly spongy from the years of blown-in leaves and forest debris. By feel alone he even found a hollow just his size. With a sigh he curled up there, gradually removing the worst of the offending sticks and stones and then reaching out for armloads of more of the flooring material to pile around and over his shivering body. Sleep was more than insistent now. Before he surrendered to it, however, a thought of caution worked its way through the fuzziness and pain in his head, and he worked the cell phone out of his back pocket again. The light from the display wasn’t much, but in that complete blackness it was surprisingly bright. Fatalistically, he half expected to see petroglyphs on the walls or maybe satanic verses and pentagrams, bones in the corner or black candles. Nothing. Completely clean. Completely sterile except for the overpowering smell of mold and damp and earth. Forcing the phone clumsily back into place was his last act before blessed silence closed over his mind.

* * * * * * * * *

It was raining hard. The perfect time to lay warm and safe before the still perfect fire in your lover’s arms. He had been particularly attentive, cuddling and giving her pleasure but taking none for himself. Odd for Mulder – well, not the attentive part — but, heck, why not. Scully wasn’t complaining. He dropped more of the lush, sweet berries into her open mouth and sealed them with a soft kiss. Life couldn’t get much better than this.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Rain drummed on the floor of the dark forest, cleaning and reviving, but inside the cave the sound was most like a lullaby, going on and on. It was enough to keep Mulder sound asleep despite the occasional stray twig that he had failed to remove, and the interest of small insects in his cuts and scratches. He slept, but in time he also began to dream. They weren’t vivid dreams, as if the fuzziness of the evening had carried over, but he knew where he was. He was in a cave curled up just as he was and he couldn’t move, didn’t want to move. With bliss, he remembered being much younger and smaller and lying under mounds of quilts warm in his bed on Martha’s Vineyard with nothing that needed doing, while some frigid Nor’easter raged outside. After a while he heard a movement, a slow and heavy lumbering. Nothing to be scared of, just his dog. It was a big black dog who resembled his beloved Thor so much. The dog’s name was even Thor, even though in real life Fox and Sam had never been allowed to have a dog, but this was a dream and sometimes good things were allowed to happen in dreams.

Thor was up on the bed standing over him now. Even though the room was black, he could feel the heat radiating off the big body, could hear the heavy breathing, could smell the heavy breathing! Ugh! What had he been eating? And rolling in? Thor wasn’t allowed on the bed but there he was. He probably wanted out but Fox didn’t feel like moving. He should wash the damn dog before his mother yelled at him, but he didn’t want to do that either. “Go to Sam,” but as happens in dreams, the words didn’t come. His mouth didn’t even move but stayed stupidly wide open. He wanted to raise his arms to push the dog away, but those wouldn’t move either, yet he felt not a trace of fear. No, Thor stayed right there, breathing out his doggy breath in great gasps. So hot, such a smell. It was in Fox’s lungs now, filling him. By the heat, the animal’s muzzle must be inches from his own. That essence of animal was getting into the boy’s nose and mouth, getting in and filling, filling, filling him with a great, huge, wild heat. Only when he could take no more, when he felt near to bursting with that hot breath, the animal moved away. He could hear its slow heavy tread as is moved into some other corner of the black room, and with a surprisingly deep grunt settled itself to sleep.

It was only after the animal began to snore softly, a sound very much like the drumming of the rain, that the spell seemed to break. Mulder roused, not a lot, but enough to exhale for what seemed like the first time since the dream began. Odd. Though he breathed out for a long, long time, he still felt a fullness in his lungs and around his heart. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt but felt rather comforting, like when a cat sleeps on your chest. This, however, must be a very big cat for he found it hard to breathe. When he tried to induce the animal to move, however, he found nothing there.

I must still be dreaming, he hoped, and, hoping, slipped back into the chilly dark.

End of Swan Lake, Part I

Continued in Part 2

________________________________________

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