The bark scraped against my bare back as he pressed against me, kissing me. I opened my mouth to him, returning the kiss, and then ducked under his arms with a laugh.
“Hannah,” he smiled. His hair shone in the sunlight, its gold the brilliance of the autumn leaves that surrounded us and crunched beneath my naked feet. I skipped back to him, my fingers teasing the buttons on his shirt, as I pulled it loose from his pants, tilting my head to kiss along his jaw line, and dancing away again when his mouth sought mine.
“Chase me!” I cajoled, and hid behind a birch, playfully peeking out from behind it to watch him approach. My hair was a rich, dark brown, like earth that’s tilled and cared for, fertile and rich. He approached and I spun away again, laughing. I wanted nothing more than to be caught and held, but it couldn’t be an easy catch. That was the game.
I flitted from silver tree to silver tree, flirting. His fingers reached me for a moment, and pulled at the strings of my halter top, almost untying it. I let him touch me, then dashed away again, leaves falling between us. Hugging a grand old oak, I heard a child’s laughter sound from the cluster of buildings nestled in the nearby valley. There was a shout and something spoken. He used my distraction to catch up with me, embracing me from behind and trailing kisses soft as petals along my shoulders.
“Come with me,” he whispered, breath hot against my skin. “Come to my room.”
Suddenly somber, I nodded. These trees—these were playful trees. Happy trees. Their mood was too light for the size of my feelings. I didn’t know the darkness that lay between them yet.
He reached for my hand, and I laid my palm in his, his fingers wrapping around mine. “Come,” he whispered again, and led the way to a small outbuilding I hadn’t noticed earlier. For a moment I felt another presence as I followed him through the shining forest. I whipped my head around to look, but no one was there. No one I could see, anyway. Only a vibrant flash of blue that I took for a jay fluttering from branch to branch.
He opened the door with a key from his back pocket and turned to me, blocking my view of the room beyond. “Close your eyes.”
I did instantly, raising my chin for the kiss that he bestowed on my upturned lips before he carefully led me into the room. Smells, familiar but out-of-place, assaulted my nose. “Can I open my eyes?” I asked.
“Wait.” He stepped away from me, and I heard him move around the room. I felt warm sunlight bathe my skin, and knew he’d opened curtains somewhere. “Now,” he murmured, and I turned to him, opening my eyes.
I was in the forest again.
No, it was different this time. I was surrounded, I could see now, by huge paintings of the self-same trees I’d so recently hid behind, been pressed up against. Their colors were made richer and more expressive by the shaft of sunshine pouring in through a skylight that took up almost the entire ceiling.
He leaned against the doorway, his eyes on my face as I gazed around me. “You like?”
“I do,” I replied, although that was a pale expression of the depth of feeling I had for his art. I approached the nearest painting, my fingers reaching for it. A hairsbreadth from the canvas I stopped, and looked at him through my tangled hair. “May I?” I asked. He inclined his head with a welcoming smile and stepped closer, behind me as I approached the canvas and touched it.
The birch in the painting felt rough, its bark scratching my skin. I turned to the artist. “How?”
“Maybe it’s magic…” he whispered, and pulled at the loosened knot on my neck. My dress tumbled to the floor, and he wrapped his arms around me, his body pressing against mine. At my back again, somehow, the rough feel of the silver bark. We kissed, deliriously, and I was lost in his embrace. My head spun from the combination of his kisses and the sharp scents of turpentine and incense filling the room.
He stepped back, and his calloused fingers ran through my hair, pulling it forward so that it covered me, a gesture of sheer modesty that made me blush at his gentleness. I reached for him, but he eluded me.
“Thank you, Hannah. I couldn’t finish it without you.”
“Finish it? What? Come back to me.” I couldn’t go to him, couldn’t…couldn’t move, suddenly. My bare feet curled in the rich dark soil of the forest. I couldn’t step forward, couldn’t step out of the painting.
He picked up my dress from the floor and hung it, carefully, on a rack with a dozen others in a wardrobe made of cherry wood. I retreated deeper into the forest, stepping behind a tree and peering out at the dimming light.
The painting hung in a hallway at the hotel, across from a room filled with books and a grand piano. The room’s windows were bare, and looked out on the same forest depicted in the massive piece of art facing it. A young musician, his blonde curls the color of autumn leaves, sat at the black piano running his fingers over the keys aimlessly. He’d found the hotel after finishing a long and trying tour, and was happy to be here, unrecognized, unknown, and undisturbed for a short while. As music spilled forth from his hands, he thought he saw, from the corner of his eye, a figure with long dark hair the rich color of newly tilled soil, darting from tree to tree. He heard a whispered, “Catch me,” and glanced up, but the room was empty. And the forest, in winter, was bare.