I always hated the way she combed her hair. She would plant herself on a moss-covered log under a spot of sunshine that had penetrated through the thick leafs atop the surrounding trees. Her naturally wavy black hair would become as smooth as the glass mirror held in the palm of her hand, while the brush in her other hand straightened every strand into its glossy appearance. When she was finished, she would stand up and separate her fallen strands of hair from the hairs of the brush. After picking out all of her hair caught in the brush, she would hold the black threads out with her child-sized hand and sprinkle the grassy earth with the hairs of innocence. Then, at the edges of her feet, the bundle of hair would become magically rooted into the ground and its darkened strands would illuminate into the bright green stems of blossoming flowers. A child—though she was—for a Nymph, Naomi had still been particularly careless with her powers. As her mentor, I was to teach her these things. Naomi needed to be taught the basics of her abilities’ potentials and limits, but, above all else, she needed to learn the dangers that threatened our kind.
After enduring four long years as my pupil, Naomi turned ten years old. It was a nourishing day in the forest with the plant life as green as ever and in the company of fair weather, when Naomi celebrated her tenth birthday. No other pupil shone brighter than she did on that day, one year ago.
The sun rose early that day and underneath its patch of light stood Naomi with her long black hair already smoothed out behind her. Her twilight strands glistened with metallic shades of violet in the sunlight as she waited for me to arrive with the day’s lesson. On this special day, a wreath of assorted flowers crowned her head and alerted me that I had forgotten to bring a gift for the child that had loyally stood by my side all these years. But, surely, I could make it up to her.
I did not dare enter into the sunlight in which she stood; it looked too pure to be tainted. Naomi remained watching me from a distance, beaming with her brilliant smile, until she realized that I would not approach her. Undaunted, she abandoned the security of the heavenly light upon her and entered the shadows of my preference, racing over to me with her arms stretched out like an angel’s wings. She did not take hold of me, but soared around my position with dancing arms and twirling legs until she completed the rotation. Her childish giggles of pleasure played around me like an array of music. And, as usual, an elaborate display of flowers had followed her star-shaped path around my feet before Naomi came to a stop in front of me. Finally, I was able to meet her violet eyes that complemented the highlights of her hair and sparkled like two fluorite jewels. My mood was not softened by her appearance.
“Enough of these reckless antics,” I sneered. “If there’s one thing we need to work on, it’s using your powers more productively. This way, you won’t be so foolish a girl as to leave such an obvious trace of our location.” I continued to lecture and scold her. “Have I not taught you about the Plagmites and what they can and will do to a Nymph? Are you not satisfied with my description of their abilities to deteriorate life, and insist on leaving them a flowery trail so you can see them for yourself?”
At this point, I had stopped to catch my breath. My nostrils were flaring as I fumed with such a heated temper that I would not be able to bring my eyes away from hers without seeing tears roll down her cheeks. But I did not expect her to cry, nor did she. There was little humiliation in my words as no other pupils were around to hear them. Rather, we stood in the seclusion of my own arrangements for our meetings.
My tone had not even startled her as she continued to stare at me with the same fixed smile of her unfaltering cheerfulness. She bounced on her heals, waiting for me to instruct her on some magic. Her high spirits never heeded to my tone, which, I now realize, was the quality I was most fond of her for. If I had known that this would be the last time I could look at the confidence in her face, unblemished by anything impure, I would not have spoken such harsh words to her.
As it was, I continued to glare at her with a mixture of displeasure and annoyance. But my torments were brought to an unexpected end when Naomi began to speak.
“Speaking of Plagmites, you never told me about Pernisceus, the most feared of them all,” she implored as casually as though my prior speech had struck her as nothing more than a gentle introduction to the day’s class lesson. She was not smiling as she asked questions that she wanted to be taken seriously, but there remained a peaceful note in her tone. “What was he like, Dagan?” She persisted with such a sweet voice that I could not deny her an answer. It was her birthday after-all.
“It is not what he was like, it is what he is like,” I corrected with a curt voice. “He is the strongest and most ruthless…” I echoed. “That is all you need to know.”
“When was the last time he struck?” Naomi asked with more interest.
I did not answer her, but looked around as a shower of flower petals began to rain upon us. A cherry blossom nearby was expanding with blooming pink flowers as the cluttering petals broke from their stems and blew in every which direction. Bud almost exploded with the expansion of their petals, growing twice the size of any unassisted blossom. I knew Naomi’s fascination with the subject must have reached a rare height of excitement as her energy caused the cherry blossom to bloom to an abnormal and reckless extent. Her childish abuse of the magic had reached a new intolerable level of my expectations and I would not allow it to persist.
“ENOUGH OF THIS!” I bellowed; this time reaching a degree of harshness that even Naomi was forced to look away. I knew my coldness was beyond that in which even I could approved of, but I did not want to show the shame I took in saying those words. Instead of apologizing, I spoke in a lower tone and edged toward a change of subject.
“Follow me,” I said as I walked past Naomi’s motionless body. I dared not look at her again as I passed by in fear that I would see some emotion on her face that I might take pity on. There was no place I wanted to show her, but as this place had worn out its welcome by the discomfort of my cruel tongue, I thought it best to find a new area.
The flowers of her star-shaped trail were crushed under the feet she had danced around, as I took no precaution in stepping over them. I did not make even an attempt to see if Naomi had followed me, until I reached the edge of our small clearing in the forest, where the trees became densely rooted around the wilderness.
She had not followed, nor had she moved. In fact, the sight of her condition was simply unnerving, but my attention was no longer focused on Naomi. My heart seemed to fall into my stomach and a heavy weight overtook the rest of my body. No longer proud with my gestures, my arms hung limply at my sides with sweat spouting from my palms as I watched the dark figure towering over my sweet Naomi. His eye sockets glowed completely red in his skeletal face. A thin layer of dark gray skin laid thinly over his skull as two long fangs, protruding from his bared teeth, extended over his chin. He was a Plagmite.
“Dagan, was it?” he called out with a scratchy voice that could raise the hair on one’s back. “You’re not so enthused to speak about me.” Naomi appeared pale, as she stood petrified by his side. “I work hard for my reputation, you know,” Pernisceus mused while clarifying his identity; not that I cared to give this insect a name. “Hmm… not so enthused to speak at all, I see. Well, perhaps it would be better if I explained things to Naomi through a bit of a demonstration.”
Naomi woke up to these words with a gasp, but her reaction came too slow as Pernisceus took hold of her shoulder before she could back away. She shrieked as her shoulder was singed with the pain of burning flesh as Pernisceus held tight. And I could not have been more proud of the fight my pupil put out using the magic I had taught her. Indeed, during those last moments with her, I was both pleased and ashamed with the discovery of her potential. How I could not have appreciated her skills until this moment became my biggest heartache. She was able to break Pernisceus’s grip with the summoning of roots to lock around his limbs and lashed at him with thorn-covered vines, whipping at his tough layer of flesh.
While at first transfixed by this display, I knew I could not allow it to continue. She could make little use of one arm, backing vainly toward the trunk of a dying tree without the source of a single living plant within reach. I could feel the low struggle of life, which was too faint for her untrained mind to detect, within the tree she leaned against. It was my last hope to save her and I would make the ultimate sacrifice to see it done. In one blink, I had come in between Naomi and Pernisceus. The tree had come to life and grabbed Naomi around the waist with its branches as she struggled to free herself, kicking at the bark and screaming my name, while the tree carried her away. And Pernisceus had clawed at my chest before I fell backwards, hoping to be caught by the tree that was no longer there.
This remains the most recent time Pernisceus had struck. While, exactly one year from that day, I still look up at Naomi. Her metallic hair lays as smooth as it had then. Those violet eyes shine brighter than ever. But there is no crown of flowers in her hair or a star path of assortments trailing behind her. The pain in her teary eyes drips onto the grass that stands on the last place I had stood. Watching from my binding roots as part of the unrecognized immobile earth, I yearn to see her holding that brush again. I want to see her sitting in a patch of sunlight, running with her arms wide open, and making petals rain over me, so I can reach out for the blossoming child that I had dragged into the shadows and left behind to wilt. Now, only as a name carved into a resting stone, do I realize that instead of trampling over the flower, I should have helped it grow.