Another stupid dryad was loose in the park.
Of course it had to be a day that I was working, right in the middle of my shift. Of course. I was always the worst at these types of emergencies. Nymphs were quick to say the least, and I’d always been lacking when it came to athleticism. It was only natural that one spontaneously decided it was going to have a lark on that day.
We’d previously gotten a pretty good hold on keeping the local dryad population away from us, after a long struggle that began with the park’s inception in the area. They’d all but successfully migrated to an empty forest a good few miles from the park, but they’d continue to occasionally slip past our gates and onto the property, seemingly wanting to at least attempt to reclaim their old stomping grounds.
Normally, it wouldn’t be that much of a problem. We got all kinds of creatures coming in and out of the place. Harpies would rest in the trees some days. We caught water nymphs slithering around in the lake all the time. That was just life in the park.
The vital difference was that other creatures usually did their thing and got out before closing. The tree nymphs still thought they owned the place, running around and disturbing the other guests.
“Look, just catch it and take it back to the forest,” Chief Condor had said before sending me off equipped with nothing but the usual dart gun. “You know the protocol by now. Sedate and transport.”
Yeah, they were easy instructions when you were the one who got to sit behind the desk.
I visualized my two weeks’ notice with particularly imaginative detail as I headed off into the depths of the property. The day I dropped that on Chief Condor’s desk seemed infinitely far away, relying entirely on my acceptance into my postgraduate program. Then I could look at dirt under microscopes instead of performing wild goose chases and giving directions in it.
I’d become tired of my part-time job long before that day. I always remained low in rank, given a title that sounded more powerful than it was. It was like being an overworked waitress with a different backdrop.
The fantasy of working in the nature that I so loved to study had lost any novelty that it might have previously had, and had been morphed into nothing more than a sign that I wasn’t moving forward with my life. Nymph wrangling was just a particularly annoying reminder nestled within it.
I was stalking through an especially wooded section of the park when I first caught a glimpse of her, skipping through between the trees in a way that let me know catching her would take more than the bare minimum in terms of effort. She glanced in my direction for a sliver of a second before darting out of sight.
“There it goes.”
I turned around and grimaced at the voice I, unfortunately, was able to recognize. Cora, who had apparently showed up behind me sometime in the past few minutes, was smiling quite proudly at me when I did. This day really couldn’t stop improving.
“Did you have to be so loud?” I asked. “You probably just scared her off for me, so thanks.”
She smirked, looking to be having far more fun with this than I ever could. “Please. She ran away before I said anything, Heather. As if you’d have been able to get her, anyway. It was practically playing hopscotch and you just gawked at it.”
I stomped down one of my boots with indignation, ignoring how childish it made me feel to do so. The tiny bit of catharsis was worth it.
“You try catching it then!” I said. “I’m tired of playing zookeeper.” When I’d applied to work at the park, I’d hoped it would give me the biology-adjacent experience I needed for my studies. Within weeks, I’d come to realize that ranger duty around here didn’t give much to my brain besides migraines.
“Chief didn’t tell me to go after the thing,” she argued, walking a bit closer. “I just came here to watch the fun. I’m on ‘general patrol duty,’ anyway, so I can technically be here.”
I groaned and briefly wondered if I ought to report her to the front office. Surely this counted as slacking off, regardless of her loopholes. The more I thought about it, though, it didn’t feel worth it. They never took me seriously up front. If anything, I’d get scolded for Avoiding a Highly Important Duty, Ranger Kim.
Maybe I could use a sidekick, anyway.
“If you’re gonna watch, then you better help,” I said, knowing that she probably wouldn’t. Cora didn’t seem any better equipped than I was for this, so the only benefit I could really hope to glean was company.
I headed off further into the trees without bothering to see if she’d follow.
“So does this kind of thing usually happen around here?” Cora asked about five minutes later, initially prompting some confusion on my part. The nymphs were complained about with something like consistency around the property.
Oh right. She’d only started to work here a few weeks ago. The nymphs ran around here annoyingly often, but not often enough for her to have seen one just yet.
“Too much,” I answered, willing her to go back to the main building. “They used to live here, and now management freaks out whenever they come back.”
“Why don’t you just let them go and leave them alone? It’s not like you can catch them. I dunno why they even sent you in the first place.”
I felt the potent urge to turn around and get her with one of the tranquilizer darts, but then they’d know it was me. I wasn’t about to get put on toilet cleaning duty because of Cora, especially after a day on Dryad Roundup.
“If we let them go, they never leave,” I said tersely. “They start playing around in the trees and dumping flowers on people.”
“That doesn’t sound terrible to me. Kind of annoying, but no big deal.”
“That’s the least of it,” I said. “Have you ever caught some guy and one of those things fooling around by the duck pond? Because I have. Can’t say that I recommend it.”
Cora burst into laughter, not seeming particularly sympathetic to my plight.
“Thanks,” I mumbled.
“Oh my God, that’s so gross!”
“I’m the one who saw it, Cora. I’m aware.”
I stopped mid-step as I heard the distinct sound of a woman giggling. It could have just as easily been one of the guests off in the distance, but I was willing to cling to any lead I’d get.
If I didn’t track this thing down by the end of the day, Chief Condor would have penalized me one way or another. I motivated myself with the image of the way people treated the public toilets around this place.
Cora stirred beside me. “What are we –“
“Shh!” I raised my hand towards her, and she quieted. The laughter bounced through the trees again. I frowned.
It sounded far away, but it was definitely a nymph. When they laughed, it almost sounded like wind. It made you think you were imagining the noise, and I was all but sure that they did it on purpose. I willed my ears to focus harder, and after a few moments, something that sounded closer to singing came from that same direction.
“She’s up north,” I whispered, looking towards the melody. “Be quiet. Don’t step too loudly. Watch out for any branches, things that can crunch and stuff.”
“Right…” Cora followed my slightly awkward stance as I crept towards onward, listening for any notable changes as I went.
After a few minutes of excruciatingly careful walking, we made it to a small clearing where a narrow, trickling stream ran straight through. Our fugitive was sitting at the edge of the water, her back to us as she busied herself.
She was still singing, tangling her fingers into the grass and taking out wildflowers to braid into her hair. Their stems grew long once they were tied in, rooting themselves to her scalp.
The nymphs taking pieces of the park back for themselves like that was a sort trophy grab, or so Chief Condor told us. They never seemed to really get past their relocation. It was their way of taking home back, in leaves and petals.
“Is she naked?” Cora whispered into my ear, and I jumped. I’d nearly forgotten that she’d followed me here.
“Be! Quiet!” I hissed. “And try not to scare me. This is gonna take focus.”
I lifted the dart gun up slowly, my heart rapidly banging into my bones and my fingers shaking to a frustrating degree.
Cora was right. I really wasn’t suited for this. I was a science geek, not a woodsman. The only reason that Chief Condor assigned me was because Ross, who was over six feet tall and ran track for his college, was on vacation. He would have had her back in their forest by now, no doubt. I was eternally on the stout side with poor grades in gym on my old report cards.
But I’d been there when the front office got the complaint, and evidently that was enough to take me there.
I took a deep, quiet breath and I could feel Cora holding hers in anticipation beside me. Just as I was convincing myself that I could do my assignment well, my index finger poised over the trigger, the nymph turned.
The surprise ruined the whole thing. I lost my nerve when our eyes met, quickly jerking the gun to the ground and shooting a dart into the grass, much like an idiot.
My target stood up without much speed and lifted a hand to cover her mouth. She was laughing at me.
“Oh shit,” Cora whispered. “Is she gonna eat us or something?”
“Cora, please,” I mumbled.
The nymph didn’t stray from her spot, even as I held my weapon still. It felt like a challenge – telling me without words that she knew I didn’t have the gumption to knock her out and take her back.
I would prove her wrong. I was not going to be wiping down urinals over this. I lifted the gun again, trying to force my hands to steady.
“Heather!” Cora whined without concern for volume. “You’re gonna make her mad!”
Maybe I would.
I aimed for her thigh, trying to make it known that I wasn’t a joke to her or anyone. The whole affair seemed to have become curiously personal.
She continued to stay motionless, and I found myself hesitating, with the target stopped right under my sights. I could have had this mess done with a twitch, go back to the main building and take an admittedly late lunch break.
The thing is, she was staring at me.
The laughter had left her face, and she was eyeing me with an unambiguous curiosity. There was no fear, however, in any crevice of it.
It made me wary. Maybe this was deliberate. Nymphs were smart, that was how they got on the park grounds unnoticed in the first place. Then again, this could have been her first time trying to get back.
That thought gave me abrupt pause. Shooting her suddenly seemed cruel.
“Ugh.” I lowered it, staring back at her now.
I shushed Cora, not bothering to look back at her. “What’s up?” I shouted across the distance, not knowing if she’d answer. “Why’re you giving me eyes, huh?”
She said nothing, just shifted playfully back and forth on her bare feet. Her lips curled up in a laugh again, and I frowned back at her. She wasn’t fazed, but gave me a single meaningful look before skipping off towards another pathway.
I only just noticed then that we were reaching the farthest borders of the property, where most guests didn’t even go outside of special events.
“Ugh, Heather!” Cora said, slapping one of her legs in disappointment. “You let her go again!”
“No one said you had to come, y’know,” I mumbled, staring off after her. She hadn’t run nearly as fast as she’d been earlier.
“Well, now I wanna get this done,” she said. “C’mon, let’s go!”
“I was gonna do that anyway,” I answered. “Besides, I think she wants me to follow her.”
“What?” Cora didn’t move for a moment as I began walking off, over the stream and towards the trees. “What do you mean!? Did she speak to you in nymph code or something? Because I don’t think I heard it.”
“It’s intuition…or something,” I said as she finally started to follow me. “Now hurry up, I’m not gonna wait for you.”
Really, I had no idea what it was – but I couldn’t bear to walk away from it then.
After a few minutes of trekking through increasingly thick trees, I began to worry that I was just falling into some trap. Maybe I’d stumble into a weird Nymph Seduction Nest and I’d live in a thicket surrounded by beautiful naked things for all of eternity. Granted, this wasn’t the worst possible outcome I could think of, but I liked my life outside of the crummy park job.
Just when I was thinking that I ought to let go of the desperation and submit to toilet duty, her singing started to echo through the trees again.
“Oh man, that’s –”
“Cora, shut up.” I grabbed her by the shoulder, as if it would hit a covert mute button. I listened like before, trying to track the distance. She was much closer than the last time I’d heard her.
I glanced ahead, looking at a darkened corner of the wood, filled with even more trees and partially blocked by bushes. “She’s in there,” I assessed.
“Great,” Cora said. “I hate the dark. Always have.”
For once, her complaining had some validation to it. The area did look a little spooky, and the setting sun wasn’t helping. The bushes alone seemed like they could scrape up anyone trying to get through. I turned to Cora, holding the dart gun close to me.
“I’ll go on on my own,” I said.
“Alright.” She paused, and her face suddenly shifted into a shade of anxiety. “Heather, that means I’m gonna be stuck out here by myself!”
I shushed her again, and she pressed her lips together in a tight, worried grimace.
“I’ll go in on my own,” I repeated. “I need you to stay here and keep watch. If I don’t come back in about…twenty minutes, then go get help. You understand?”
She looked as if she very much did not want to, but she only took one, nervous breath before nodding in my direction.
“Be careful, please,” she begged.
It was a good thing she was terrified, because it forced me to be brave on her behalf. I never knew nymphs to be particularly dangerous creatures, but then, I didn’t know much about them at all. Maybe this was how they sucked in their prey, calling out siren songs and attracting vulnerable losers with short legs.
Whatever. I’d already come too far to convince myself to back out. It seemed like a fitting way to to meet my end, taken out by one of the nymphs that helped make a miserable job even more intolerable for me.
Besides, should I manage to survive, there were always lawsuits.
Once I’d gotten through the bushes, the path through was dark, but straight. Her singing grew closer with every step. I took my flashlight off of my belt, following the path and keeping the light close to the ground to avoid startling anything.
I held the dart gun in my other hand, trying to ready myself. The sun was dipping lower, even beyond the shade of the trees. Supposedly, there were no particularly dangerous creatures on the park property. There was no direct proof of that, though. They could just tell us that so we don’t run off after ranger orientation.
I felt like I’d been walking for a good while when I finally spotted another clearing. It would have been a struggle to miss it, casting a burst of natural light onto the trail. I tucked my flashlight away and kept my cautious pace, keeping a loose grip on the gun as I approached the opening.
Her singing was as clear as I’d ever heard it, but there was harmony to it now. It took me a moment as my eyes adjusted to the light, but she was there – alone, dancing around a single, lonely tree. I frowned, wondering what it was doing all by itself, firmly divorced from the rest of the woods. Her eyes caught mine, and I felt myself panic for a brief second. Without apparent worry, she just continued to dance in the same circle.
I walked forward, coming closer until I was near enough to reach out and touch her as she moved. The closer I got, the less sure I was of what I’d actually do. I kept the gun at my side, not wanting to scare her off with aiming just yet.
As I felt the usual urge to take her out, do my duty and move on like I’d planned, I also began to submit to something much more bizarre.
The look she’d given me a few minutes before had stuck to me, taking over my anger and dissolving it into curiosity. Every inch that I moved closer to her took away from my willpower to act as instructed. I didn’t want to shoot down the mystery. Evidently, this miserable job couldn’t kill my scientific curiosity as easily as my morale.
She kept singing without any regard for my presence, and finally looped her legs around the base of the tree and reached up towards its branches.
The bark melted away before me, disintegrating into glowing bits of light as it fell and morphed into another creature that looked just like her. The first nymph’s legs were still wrapped around their waist, formerly the tree trunk. The other stared down at her for just a moment, eyes affectionate and excited, before she untangled herself from them and the two began to move together.
I was silent as they danced as a pair, with the other, harmonizing voice now much louder than it had been when I arrived. It became clear that the routine she’d been doing around the tree had been missing a partner, and it now looked much more whole with the two of them together. I felt like I was watching a ballet, suspended in time while they didn’t bother to heed me once.
I remembered hearing about something like this, vaguely, in one of my introductory courses. I was involved in ecology, not humanoids, so nymphs weren’t something I learned about once. But I did remember one thing – nymph mate dances were intensely private, and completely meaningful. When two nymphs moved together like this, it was as sacred as their behavior got.
When they stopped moving, they came back to the exact spot where she had awoken the other, and she pulled the stream’s wildflowers from her hair. The stems twisted around each other in her hands, and the other nymph took them into their own. They stared at her all the while, that same enamored look deep in their eyes. The new dryad pressed the flowers against their chest, and the first nymph again wrapped her legs around her partner.
It was then that they finally looked to me. I dropped my gun on instinct, holding my hands up in a quick show of surrender. I’d lost sight of the fact that I’d even had it until they acknowledged me. Any desire to nab my target had thoroughly evaporated by that point, too transfixed by the sight I’d unwittingly come upon.
They smiled, and the first nymph linked her arms around her partner’s neck as she balanced herself upon them. She looked to her partner, and their eyes were on each other again. They pressed their mouth to her neck, and she sang a single, high note before the light came back.
Their skin returned to bark, and the tree that she’d been dancing around reformed from their bodies, now doubled in its previous size. The flowers she’d brought were now bursting from a crook in the branches where her partner had held them, and similar ones were growing from the top. I stared for an indeterminate amount of time as my shock took over.
I didn’t register Cora’s voice at first. The moment seemed to come back to reality in pieces, feature by feature. I couldn’t remember if the sun had been setting when I’d arrived, but it evidently had begun to descend below the trees nonetheless.
“Ranger Kim! Are you in there?” I whipped my head around, finally jumping back to my head when I heard the distinct boom of Chief Condor calling me from down the path I’d walked on the way here.
I began to walk back to meet them, but soon enough he, Cora and a group of my coworkers were at the entrance of the clearing with flashlights in hand.
“Ranger Kim!” Chief Condor shouted. “We were told you were in danger. What happened? Where’s the dryad?”
“I…” I glanced back at the tree, whose petals were now floating gently in the air that was quickly turning to night. I noticed a spot beyond the clearing, where the tiniest hint of the park’s north bordering fence was visible in the distance.
“She ran off, Chief,” I said finally, going back to eyeing the tree. Part of me wondered if they’d reanimate, revealing themselves to my coworkers. And yet, that felt incredibly impossible, even as their shared form laid plain before us all. “She probably escaped into the suburbs or something like that.”
“Hmm,” Chief Condor studied the distance for just a moment, not seeming to have trouble with my excuse. “Sounds like she’s gonna head back to their woods then. Either way, it’s out of our hands, and that’s just as good as capturing her, I guess. Saves us the trouble of bringing her back.”
“Is something wrong, Ranger Kim?” he asked. “She didn’t attack you, did she? Do you need to go to the medical building?”
I realized I was still staring at the tree, my abandoned dart gun laying in the grass nearby. I hurriedly went to grab it, going back to the search party and trying to compose myself. “No, no,” I said. “I’m good. Just kinda winded.”
“That’s fair enough. It has been a few hours.” He still seemed suspicious, but not enough to probe the matter. “Well…Come on, then. Let’s head back. I had to leave Ranger White running the front office, and you know that’s gonna be a mess if we don’t get back soon.”
Without anything more, he turned and headed back down the path. My colleagues began to follow, looking a bit put off by the lack of climactic drama, but Cora waited on me.
“What happened?” she whispered as she walked in my direction. I turned back to the tree once again for just a moment, and I took one of the flowers that fell from the branches. It seemed to grow bigger in my palm.
“I’ll have to tell you later,” I said quietly. She looked up at the tree, then back at my hand. She nodded before putting an arm around my shoulders, and we took our time as we walked back towards the path out.
I minded the trees.