The Scent of Leaves
by Kathryn Trattner
Publication date: January 15th 2021
Genres: Adult, Fairy Tales, Retelling
Janet has always dreamed about leaving her small town behind and starting over somewhere fresh. The only thing keeping her going is a photography obsession and her film camera. For her, life is a series of late nights spent working at a local gas station and days earning a final college credit before graduation. But she’s been putting it off for so long she’s starting to feel like it might not happen.
One night Tom appears, charming and handsome, and going out of his way to get to know her. Suddenly he’s everywhere in her small town, appearing and disappearing at odd moments, creeping in on her days and nights. As they spend time together, Janet falling more under his spell each day, she begins to realize that reality is different around Tom. Small things begin to happen, odd occurrences turning into strange events, as Janet is pulled deeper into the mystery surrounding him.
In this modern retelling of the classic Ballad of Tam Lin the world is brought into sharp focus through the lens of a camera. The line between what is and is not real blurs, nature stealing in around the edges, and Janet comes to understand that there is more at stake than just a broken heart.
Another night came and went, smelling like coffee and glass cleaner as she turned the convenience store over to Gary in early morning. The sun had yet to come up, a thin yellow line growing on the horizon, diffusing, and she eyed it as she walked toward her car, wondering what kind of day it would turn out to be.
“Where will you go now?”
She jumped, turning to see Tom leaning against the building.
“How long have you been here?”
“A minute or two. Ryan dropped me off. I was just behind Gary but didn’t want to come in and give you away. I was worried he’d tell your boss you have company every night.”
“Not every night,” she said, shrugging.
“Close enough.” Tom stepped forward, shoving his hands into the front pockets of his jeans, shoulders coming forward. “Where will you go?”
He smiled, “Would you like to do something besides go home?”
She could not help it, she smiled too, a creeping delight curling her toes. “Like what?”
“You drive. I’ll navigate.” He moved to the passenger side of her car, hand on the door, waiting for her.
Janet unlocked the car and got in, aware of him sliding in beside her, taking up more air and space than the little car had to spare. She turned it on and rolled down the windows, shooting him a look before backing out of the space. At the edge of the lot, where the street met the gas station, and all roads led away, she paused, waiting for the first direction.
She put the blinker on and turned.
Tom half turned to her, already smiling. “So, tell me what you want to be when you grow up.”
“What?” She laughed, glancing at him and away. The town rolled by, flat background to his intense stare.
“What’re you going to school for? I don’t think you’ve told me.”
“And photography is part of that?”
“It can be but mostly I just stumbled into it.”
“And you love it?”
She smiled. “Yeah, I do.”
“So what’s your end goal then? In a year where do you want to be?”
“Not here.” The answer came out so fast, she hadn’t thought about it, just opened her mouth and there it was, hard and solid truth.
“This place isn’t so bad,” he said.
“You didn’t grow up here.”
“I think I would have liked it if I had.”
“You say that.”
“No really, I think it would have been nice.”
“Everyone here is still talking about how my mom left. It’s been twenty years and they’re still asking if I miss her. They still ask my dad if he’s heard from her. It’s like it happened yesterday for them, still gossiping about it. They don’t have anything better to do. To be fair though they’re also still talking about the one year the pickles exploded at the state fair.”
“Yep, when I was one.”
He sounded like he meant it, but she did not look at him, not wanting to see pity in his eyes. She stopped at a four-way intersection, looking each direction. “Which way?”
“Left,” he said without hesitation. He did not tell her where they were going. The sun touched her rear-view mirror, throwing light in her eyes, filling the car with reflections. The seen and unseen, the shadows and light dancing over their faces, hiding expressions and masking fears.
After a pause she asked, “What about you?”
“Yeah, in a year where do you want to be?”
“Somewhere with a stage.”
She laughed, “Yeah?”
He nodded. “I grew up in a big town with plays and movies rolling around in my head. I was in all the school plays and a few after high school in local venues. I did performance art in college.”
“You’ve graduated?” she asked.
“No. I’ve got a semester left.”
“Why’d you leave when you were almost finished?” She darted a look at him, watching his face shut down and close up, light shifting over his features.
“I had an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was too good.”
“But it wasn’t?”
He shook his head, turning to look out his window, silence growing between them like lichen, slow and spreading. She drove in it, skin prickling, head buzzing. The sun, though rising, seemed suspended above the horizon and they had crossed the town limits a few miles back. He had chosen farm fields and grassy valleys, open areas, instead of the dark closeness of the trees, the Nantahala National Forest in the other direction. Janet was not sure what else was out here, besides fields and woods, and eventually the next town.
“Here!” Tom shouted, pointing to the right.
“Where?” Janet looked around, fields and low hills rolling past, a few trees but mostly knee-high grass and rocks. But she caught sight of a narrow track leading away from the road, overgrown and faded.
“That dirt track there.”
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to get my car down that.”
The track was more of a path, overgrown and rutted, twisting out of sight.
“You can park on the verge and we’ll walk.”
She pulled over, checking the mirrors for traffic, the engine ticking as she rolled the car windows back up. The road belonged to them, the countryside full of bird song and morning light. She wished she had brought her camera last night, so she would have it now, so she would be able to capture the physical warmth shimmering and thrown up by the dewy grass. She held her breath for an instant, pulling it all inside, keeping it tight against her heart.
He looked at her, understanding, and the smile he gave her was swift but sweet.
He swung out of the car and she followed, smoothing her shirt as she got out. She felt tired and greasy, the scent of stale coffee on her skin. In the already hot morning, sweat prickled along her hairline. She wished she had known he would be waiting, that she had worn a less faded work shirt and not the baggy jeans she reserved for days she did not care.
But he had not shown up the night before and she had wondered if she would see him again. Or if he would be gone just as suddenly as he had arrived, and realizing that, knowing it, made her realize she was hoping he would show up.
He took her hand as they left the paved road behind, twining their fingers together, pulling her toward the track with long sure strides.
“I come here a lot,” he said, looking down at her. “It’s quiet. I don’t get a lot of alone time generally.”
She realized she did not know very much about him. As much as they had talked and he had talked, there was not much about his current situation that he shared. But she felt like she knew parts of him, accepting his presence beside her, wanting him with her.
A shake of his head, lips twisting into ruefulness.
They came around the curve, around the hill, and Janet stopped.
“I didn’t know this was here.”
Shielded from the road a clear pond sparkled in the hollow between hills. Water lilies floated on the surface, dark green leaves and brilliant white blooms. The grass was greener, the blue morning sky above the pond clearer.
“It’s spring fed. You can see where it bubbles up from the rocks in the deeper parts.”
“How did you find it?”
“Someone showed me. I had the same reaction you did. My mouth fell open and I just stood there.”
“So are you.”
He smiled, pleasure pouring from him, washing over her. In that moment she would have jumped off a bridge with him. And with that feeling deep down inside she knew she would have flown.
Then he pulled her, jogging for the water, without pausing. She let herself go, following, until they ran into the pond, fully clothed, shoes and all, between waving blossoms and rippling lily pads. Janet laughed, throwing back her head, the sound of it bouncing back. It was cold and water up past her knees, chasing away the sweat from the hot morning. The sun felt different in the little hollow, like liquid gold, soft against her skin.
He kissed her, quick like a habit she never wanted him to break, the pressure of his mouth there and gone. He took her laugh with him, releasing it with his own, leaving her breathless and aware of their bodies, so close, and the quiet of the hollow around them.
“I think this place is magic,” she said.
“It must be. Give me your hands.”
She did and he held her at arm’s length, their arms stretched taut. “At the count of three fall back.”
“We’ll get soaked.”
“We’re already soaked,” he laughed, squeezing her hands tight. “Ready?”
She shook her head no but said, “Ready.”
He fell back, away from her, his smiling face falling. She let herself go, surrendering to gravity, feeling weight and then water rushing in, filling ears and nose. The bottom of the pond was sandy beneath her hands, a little rocky, and not at all slimy like other ponds she had jumped into as a kid. She squeezed her eyes tight, holding her breath, floundering up. She wiped water from her eyes, pushed hair out of her face. She gasped and laughed.
Opening her eyes, expecting Tom and not seeing him, she turned, sloshing, searching her surroundings. The water rippled, like a stone had been tossed in, like a grown man had cannon balled into it. She waited, expecting him to pop up, gasping for air, slicking his hair back. Birds trilled, making her realize how quiet the hollow had been since they had first stepped into it. The water continued to ripple and move.
She turned, scanning, brows coming together. The birdsong grew louder, grating, filling her head like a buzz saw. She sloshed forward, hands in the water, moving as if she could part it, feeling for Tom. It was so clear she could see the sandy bottom, the rocks, the water lilies.
The pond was empty.
Kathryn Trattner has loved fairy tales, folk stories, and mythology all of her life. Her hands down favorites have always been East of the Sun, West of the Moon and the story of Persephone and Hades. When not writing or reading she’s traveling as much as possible and taking thousands of photos that probably won’t get edited later. She lives in Oklahoma with her wonderful partner, two very busy children, one of the friendliest dogs ever, and an extremely grumpy cat who doesn’t like anyone at all.
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