After a disastrous dinner at which Proberta barely touched a morsel of food, while his mother threw barbs at him from across the table, Henley sat in his father’s overstuffed armchair smoking a cigar and sipping a fine Hennessey. Women. He just didn’t understand them. What was Proberta thinking, behaving like a spoiled child in front of everyone? She was spoiled. Most girls of her station in life were, of no fault of their own he supposed. But he knew as well as she did, that she was not terribly interested in him as a husband. If she had been, he would have been the one she flirted with at social events, or swooned over during crocket matches. So why this display? There was some mischief afoot, he could smell it.
It didn’t bother him that she, as well as his mother, thought him to be a foolish boy, unaware of what went on around him. That, however, was about to change. His mother he knew to be difficult, and meddled far too much in his affairs. It was his own fault that he had let her for all these years. He knew that. Things had started innocently enough, then it just became easier to let the old girl have her way. But now, Henley realized as he tossed back a good shot of the cognac, he needed to end the charade, he needed to take control of his life.
Placing the empty snifter on the sideboard, Henley stood, deciding to take in the midnight air. The house was quiet, the guests long gone, and his parents fast asleep. How fresh and invigorating it was outdoors, the moon a half crescent, the wind stilled. He walked down to the water’s edge, catching an image of the night sky in the ponds mirror. He breathed deeply, feeling satisfied with the way the evening unfolded. It had to happen - something had to happen. Crickets and frogs seemed to compete with the stillness, the acre suddenly filling with sound. He shut his eyes against night’s chorus, feeling refreshed and rejuvenated for the first time in ages. Yes, he thought. Change is afoot, and ‘bout time. He laughed aloud, surprising even himself. In the distance, something else could be heard. Faint music cutting sharply through the natural cacophony, an exquisite trill that reached the treetops, settled there, then fell like a million twinkling diamonds, into the pond. An echo. Henley looked around, but saw nothing. Then, once again the song resonated, through the forest, the lawn, and to the water’s edge where Henley stood breathless. He listened, and followed with his ear into the depth of dark forest. In the distance, between the thicket of branches, a flicker of light could be seen, which helped guide his way. Paying no attention to time or the distance traveled, Henley moved like a sleuth in the night, until he arrived at a large hawthorne tree in the middle of a clearing. The light seemed to be coming from the trunk of the tree. Curiosity getting the better of him, Henley approached the light and quickly discovered, to his surprise, that a small hut was built around, and in, the massive trunk of the tree itself. The circumference was at least six men, arms linked together - an ancient tree. It appeared undisturbed, the craftsmanship of the hut designed cleverly around the broad trunk, using it not only as camouflage but as anchorage, or foundation.
From the side, a small doorway led to a quaint but substantial looking living quarter, one level, that eased back into the woods, blending seamlessly with the flora and fauna. If approached from the main path, one would hardly notice it existed, but coming around from the outer side, there it was, a well-built edifice. A home.
By this time, it was clear that the lovely singing was coming from inside. Whoever it was, Henley was certain they were unaware of his presence, as the voice was full of uninhibited passion, so sensual it sent shivers up his spine. Nothing had moved him more in his life than this. He had to find out who it was who sang so beautifully, so lustfully, to lull him to this magical place. He approached, and knocked on the rustic wooden door. The singing stopped and all was quiet. He knocked again, this time with more determination. He heard a shuffle, as if someone was putting things away, or hiding. But then, before he had a chance to turn around with a change of heart, the door opened. There before him stood the most magnificent woman he had ever seen. Her skin the color of mahogany, her eyes the deep brown of the forest itself. She was wearing a white embroidered peasant blouse that seemed to fall naturally off her shoulders, revealing a silky smooth neck, collarbone, arms, and breasts that spilled out as if they were overripe. She appeared undaunted, by her appearance or by his presence.
“Come in,” she said casually, the same musicality in her voice as in the songs she sang. He entered. As if she expected him, she took his jacket off, placing it on the chair by the door, took his hand in hers, and led him through a small doorway into the main room of the hut where a roaring fire lit and heated the room. She seated him in an armchair by the warmth, and settled at his feet on top of a wooly carpet.
“It’s rather late for a visit, don’t you think?” She said. Henley looked at her, confused.
“Well, madam,” he stammered. “I never would have dared impose if I hadn’t been out getting a breath of air and heard your lovely singing. It reached me clear down to the pond on my family’s property. You might know of it, the Hornbrook estate.” The woman turned her head toward the window to hide her reaction.
“Yes,” she said finally. “I have heard of it. You’re the only son, aren’t you? Don’t you have an elder sister too? Margaret I believe her name is. Is that right?”
“How do you know all this?” Asked Henley, taken aback. Then he remembered a woman he overheard his mother speak of, who lived in the forest and sold some of the locals herbs and medicinal tinctures for their ailments. He had never bothered much with details, but it suddenly occurred to him this could be the woman. Her eyes met his, all knowingly.
“You’re her, aren’t you?”
“Who are you then, a witch doctor, a shaman, a gypsy?”
She laughed, and as she did, deep brown curls from the hair piled atop her head, fell into her face. He was tempted to reach out and tuck them behind her perfect ears, one lock at a time, stroke the smooth skin of her cheek.
“I am whoever you want me to be,” she said. “I help people, or at least I try. What ever they want to call me is their business. I am just who I am, the daughter of Romney and Lavinia, who lived in this forest long before you or I existed. They lived on this land alongside your forefathers, so I inherited my destiny just as you have yours.”
“So, you were born here?”
“I was. I was raised right here in these woods, and taught all that I know. I carry the gift from my mother, that was passed on from her mother. We are a family who has toiled and flourished on this land for generations.” She paused. “I buried my parents here in these woods, not far from your family plot. Now I carry on our traditions...but alone.”
Henley was completely enthralled by this woman’s story. He had no idea. He thought he knew everything there was to know about the land he lived on, the estate, the business, everything. To now find out about this forest secret, this beautiful woman who lived just beyond the home where he had grown up, was beyond imagination. Words escaped him. With her usual sixth sense, she came to his rescue.
“Don’t worry. There’s really no way you would have known about me before this. I live a quiet life, and stay well out of the limelight, so to speak.” She reached into the woodbox beside the hearth, and placed another log on the red hot coals. A yellow and blue flame quickly ignited. “I must admit that I didn’t expect you this soon.”
“Expect me? What are you talking about?”
Rosetta shifted, uncomfortably rearranging the carpet under her feet. She jabbed at the fire with the iron poker. Had she missed something? She was rarely, if ever, wrong with her instincts. Hadn’t Edith suggested she was going to send Henley to her? Hadn’t she been told that, for a decent wage, she was to teach Henley everything there was to know about women and sex and love? Well, here he was. She didn’t know what to make of this naitivity, this denial on his part.
“Who sent you?” Rosetta ventured, slightly disturbed.
“Sent me? Why would anyone send me?”
Rosetta blushed, and turned toward the flames as sparks leapt up the chimney of the stone hearth. She stood up, brushed the dust from her skirt, and walked around till she stood tall and straight behind Henley. Reaching over his shoulders, she started with the top button of his starched white cotton shirt, and worked her way down until it peeled off him easily. Her soft palms rubbed along his chest to broad shoulders, where she began kneading his taut muscles. To her surprise, he was strong and muscular. Opening a jar on the small table beside the chair, Rosetta dabbed a generous amount of warm salve on Henley’s neck.
“What’s that?” Henley asked, melting against each press of her fingers.
“It’s hawthorne salve, made from this very tree.”
A fragrant essence wafted into the room. Henley began to relax. Before he knew it, the crackle of wood in the fire, the scent of hawthorne berries, and the faint sound of a gentle breeze blowing through the trees outside, he began to drift into a the most unusual dream state he’d ever felt. It was as if his spirit was floating above the room, then above the forest, looking down on all there was to see. But he was also looking down at himself, because he was there.
In the dream, the forest was shimmering, as if it were filled with fireflies. Each step he took upon the mossy ground ignited into a blaze of neon. Fairies and wood elves darted from log to log, branch to branch, in merry chase. Music played, women sang and danced, half naked in blissful abandon. There was one woman who stood out from the rest. Her auburn curls fell in layers, covering her body until they nearly touched the ground. But Henley could see her bronze, perfectly round breasts peek out from behind the curtain of hair, see a hint of knee, of delicious inner thigh, and two slender ankles. She smiled at him, then without warning, swept away the thick luxurious strands, revealing a body so provocative, so full and smooth and intoxicating, that it did more than take Henley’s breath away. It made him moan aloud in ecstasy. Rosetta dug her deft fingers deeper into his muscular shoulders and smiled.
...stay tuned...chapter four will be posted next Tuesday, January 31st...