I need you to delay tomorrow’s sunset.
You realize you are asking me to do the impossible, don’t you?
You have always done the impossible.
Gwyn kneels at her mother’s feet, bathed in moonlight and dripping with golden sunflowers, pink carnations, sweet sprigs of baby’s-breath. She is every picture of the good child-of-a-goddess, save for this — begging for a favor in the grounded company of the meadow-grass and summer weeds.
What is so important, Gwyn, that I must delay the natural order on your behalf?
Gywn does not answer, but instead inclines her head slightly towards the forest behind her, where, ducking between the branches, the tree-spirits and forest-souls are beginning to stir underneath a slowly sinking moon. It is not an explanation, but it is enough to make her goddess-mother hum in understanding, a low, melodic note that rings across the clearing where they have laid their camp in anticipation. The bonfire rings have been set, but the wood remains unlit. Gwyn’s sisters rest easily in the grass, no worries of their own, draped in flowers and a generational beauty inherited from the Keeper of the Sun herself: a beauty that glows, glimmers, burns when you stand too close or look it directly in the eyes.
I will hold the sun for you. But you must give me a favor in return.
There is a dwelling, over the sea which I cannot cross. Deliver this there and remain unseen. Be back before dawn, and I will hold the sun still as long as I can.
The goddess-mother opens her cupped hands, and between them lies a glass jar, containing a single, brilliant sunbeam held captive. Gwyn hesitates; the glass jar an anomaly in her world of free and radiant light not confined by jars or cupped hands. Go on. She rises to her feet, unsteady, and reaches for the jar. It is warm to the touch, a low hum familiar and melodious coursing through the air around it as though the sunbeam itself were singing. And maybe it was. Safe travels, the goddess-mother says, but Gwyn does not know if she is talking to her or to the captive sunbeam.
Despite the rushing water, the tides wavering with excitement towards the pull of the gravitational full moon, setting, but not set yet, the ocean poses no threat to Gwyn. She floats across the surface on light, lithe feet, dancing a witching hour symphony in full gaze of the starless sky. When she reaches the opposite shore, she feels a well of regret in her chest for the dull, heavy weight in her footsteps again chained to the stagnant earth. Her regret lasts only a moment — there is still a delivery to be made, a favor to be completed, a bonfire to dance around when the sun comes up.
The dwelling is easy to find. It stands alone on the slope of an inlet, surrounded by sunflowers grown tall like the kindest of fences, heads drooped as they sleep through the night. Sunflowers should not grow here, Gwyn thinks. She creeps closer to the dwelling and peeks in at its open window. The window overlooks a simple space, little in the way of furniture. A figure sleeps peacefully in the bed, shrouded in a patchwork quilt slightly fraying at the edges, isolated enough on this slope to dare to leave the curtains drawn as she sleeps. On the other side of the sill, Gwyn sees a jar identical to the one she carries, and suddenly, she thinks she understands. The strange sunflowers, the identical jar now empty. Instinctively, she eases open the unlocked window, takes the empty jar, replaces it with the new sunbeam burning vibrant in the dark room. The figure begins to stir as the light stretches its gentle hands across the room, and Gwyn turns and flees back towards the shore before she can be seen.
She returns to her goddess-mother as the sun begins to creep over the sky. Her goddess-mother merely nods, once, deeply, and Gwyn knows she has done well. Her sisters are running across the meadow, now, awakened from the peaceful slumbers they had shared while Gwyn had been dancing across the ocean. They scatter like raindrops among the grass, gathering branches only to drop them again in their laughter. It is a mystery, how the bonfire is built in all of this, but soon it stands as tall and revering as ever. Golden-haired girls dance around it in exuberant circles, flowers falling from their hair, their pockets, the slipped grasp of their hands. Careless and carefree, childish keepers of the meadow.
Gwyn joins them, but her eyes look towards the forest. The leaves rustle with movement; whispers carry across the field, and yet no one emerges. She rounds the circle past her goddess-mother and hears, whispered, They will come, so low it might have been her imagination.
And then, they emerge. It is a sight that becomes no less impressive with each year that passes, the tree-spirits and forest-souls pouring from between the branches that grow thick and dense in this part of the woods. Wisps grow corporeal before their eyes, take on shapes that are vaguely human unless gazed upon for too long, with eyes that reflect like mirrored pools and bore deep into the soul.
Across the bonfire flames stretching fiery arms towards the sky, Gwyn catches the forest-soul’s opaque eyes. Their recently-formed mouth curves upward in a smile that rings gentle against the darkness that trails behind all of the creatures that leave the woods for this meadow, twice a year. She feels her cheeks burn in a way that has nothing to do with the fire roaring in front of her, as she clumsily makes her way around the circle, skipping steps and trading places to reach them, her forest-soul returned to her.
Hand clutched in incorporeal hand, they dance around the bonfire with the rest until they are all breathless, flushed, wild with the honeyed taste of summer promise on their tongues and sweet with the sun’s rays glowing on their skin. They throw themselves down to the grass amongst the tangled limbs of golden daughters and shadowed woods creatures, side-by-side and tangled themselves. The rabble of voices died only when the goddess-mother cleared her throat, uttered something low and rumbling in a language older than the dirt beneath their skin-not-skin, a command that sent them scattering across the meadow. Gwyn dashed for the trees, bare legs flashing in the vivid sunlight as she led an unspoken race against the forest-soul.
They collapsed again beneath the old oak, stretching out against the roots that bumped along the ground’s surface. Tell me your name, Gwyn whispered, a note of laughter still tinged in her voice that the wind around them did not quite hide.
I’ll tell you at the next solstice. The forest-soul’s words were serious, but their mouth still curved in a knowing, teasing grin.
You say that every year.
A name is a precious thing.
Gwyn hardly has time to register her disappointment before they are off again. There is much to be done in these spare hours, races to run, rivers to swim, a summer sun high in the sky as they lay, eyes closed, on the banks of the river to dry. It is a long time before they are tired, but not so long that the sun has yet sunk into the horizon.
The forest-soul notices. What tricks have you played, this time?
Gwyn does not answer, but instead turns her eyes towards the goddess-mother holding solitary vigil by the still-burning bonfire. The forest-soul understands, and something of gratefulness flickers in their eyes for a moment before the mirrored-pool-opacity returns. They beckon and Gwyn follows, deeper into the reaching arms of the trees. One following the other, they stop at the base of an ash tree, younger than the oak on whose roots they had rested and older than the sapling that neighbored it. Gwyn reaches out to touch the base of the trunk and finds it warm beneath her fingers, as the sunbeam jar was so many hours ago.
The forest-soul disappears into a hollow in the trunk of the tree, and Gwyn follows. There, it is cool and dark, damp with the smell of earth and sweet, soft wood. The closeness of the space presses them together, and it is there they watch as the sun, finally, sinks lower in the sky. Between the branches, the golden glow casts strange shadows and caresses the trees in the fading arms of a gleaming embrace. Darkness settles in behind it in the spaces that the sun has already left, returning to where it comfortably rests in the late-early-late hours.
The forest-soul leans even closer to Gwyn, pressing their fingers already vanishing with the sun into hers with something caught between them, pressing the hint of their lips against the curve of her jaw. When the sun leaves the sky and darkness fully shrouds the forest, Gwyn is left with a sliver of ash bark in her hands, and a name whispered distantly in her ear. Despite herself, she smiles and the hollow of the tree lights-up golden, sun-swept, bright.
[Monica Robinson (mrobinsonwrites.com) is a queer experimental poet and recycled artist, mixing mediums to create fresh works of exploratory literature. She is eternally haunted by the rural Midwestern landscape in which she grew up, and she has been writing her brand of the weird and the wild ever since. Monica is the author of Exit Wounds, Earth Is Full, Go Back Home, bury me in iron and ivy, and is currently working on her first full-length fiction work. She has also been published in Persephone’s Daughters, Mookychick Mag, and Stone of Madness Press, and currently works with Sword & Kettle Press and Frayed Edge Press on social media management and content creation.]