The beads of my headdress shimmered in the final rays of sunlight as the evening sun sank beneath the horizon. The tolling bell of the School resounded throughout the courtyard, sending the birds into the air and marking the end of my meditation.
The gentle chatter of my peers slowly became louder as they each finished their conversations with Gaia. I watched them with a pleasant smile, until an olive-colored hand offered to help me up.
I followed him through the courtyard to the space in the back, reserved only for the near-enlightenment students. A flickering fire was already burning in the pit, and the fireflies were already taking flight. The other students chatted and laughed merrily as we joined the circle.
They settled in as he picked up a stringed instrument and slowly plucked the strings. A gentle sway took the bodies of the students while they listened with closed eyes. I sat with a grin on my face, and my eyelids cracked just enough to watch him. He was different—a guardian of the forest, a Nymph. As students, we were forbidden from interacting with the forest in any way, for leaving our mark would damage the world. Our lack of experience had allowed his kind to slip into our ranks unnoticed.
I roused myself from my thoughts and followed his gaze to the forest beyond. I had never strode among the trees, but I longed to. As he strummed his final note, I felt a change in the atmosphere. He stood, his vine-laced fingers offering me an unrefusable invitation. Once his fingers closed around mine, I knew there was no going back.
I felt like a child among the undergrowth, staring in wonder at the shifting canopy overhead. Nature was everywhere, even intertwined with the houses of his people. I was welcomed into his village with pleasant nods and open arms. They were beautiful, lithe, with wild eyes.
They laughed as my feet left marks in the soil, my rounded toes next to his pointed ones. It was something the school taught us never to do—never leave your mark on the forest—but here, the guardians were encouraging it. As we walked through his village, he guided me with a green hand, his vines entwined with my fingers and spreading up my wrist. Sorrow filled my chest. I knew I would have to leave eventually.
I didn’t notice the passage of time until the sun had vanished and the jungle streets came alive, lighting up with flower bulbs supporting colonies of fireflies. We walked, and I felt home.
We stopped on the edge of the forest, between civilization and freedom. The fire burned brightly in the courtyard, blotting out the stars while the students chatted of their progress with Gaia. Suddenly, their folly was clear.
With open arms I was accepted by the forest, abandoning my technature anxieties for utopian dreams.