I remember the way sunlight splashed across his face when first I saw him, dappling it with shadow. We were in this very forest, amidst these same stands of fir and pine that have swathed Mount Kithairon since the first days. This vale, alas, is a cursed place. A beautiful place, but cursed all the same, for Hera stole my words and sequestered me here as punishment for my lust. Never mind that it was Zeus who forced himself upon me. I was an Oread... treacherous seduction was bred into my immortal blood. Who would believe that I was not to blame?
I suppose I should have known better than to approach a mortal. Perhaps I am simply doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over for eternity. Perhaps that was part of Hera's curse all along.... that my immortal days would be forever filled with the echoes of my own flaws. Perhaps I truly am just a fool who brings trouble upon myself, as Hera claimed. Perhaps it will one day happen again, but I do not think so. I do not think I have it in me to love again. I believe this tale will be my final echo.
I followed the mortal for three days before I dared approach him. Silently I stalked him, keeping my lithe body reed thin, pressing it against the trees, which knew and loved me well, trusting them to keep me hidden. I watched by night as he stretched out his muscular body and rested in the glow of his campfire. I watched by day, when he was at his most lovely. It was the warm season and he would often prowl shirtless, sweat glistening on his broad chest. I was drawn to him. Fool that I was I threw caution to the wind.
When at last I decided to reveal myself, he was standing in a small clearing, bow in hand. His arrow was notched and sighted on a whitetail gazelle, one eye squinting, the other wide and bright and blue as a mountain pool. His skin was golden in the afternoon light, a tangle of sandy blonde hair windswept back from his face.
I have never loved to see children of men hunting in my forests. The creatures that call this place home are as close to friends as ever I have known. So it was, I convinced myself, this protective spirit in me that drew me from hiding. In my heart, though, I knew this was a lie. I just wanted him to see me... to know me... to love me. For he was the most beautiful mortal I had ever laid eyes upon. I desperately wanted to seduce him.
That is the nature of an Oread, after all. Or so I've been told. It is also, I believe, the nature of true love.
I stepped hesitantly from behind the sheltering arms of a great sentinel tree. The slight and intentional rustle of brush drew the mortal hunter's eyes to me, distracted him long enough for the doe to bound off gracefully through the underbrush. The hunter turned his startled eyes on me... and oh how I basked in being seen. At first his finely chiseled face was carved into a mask of irritation, his eyes narrowed, aquiline nose held high aloft. Then, slowly, he took me in and recognized me for what I was.
I should tell you, I am no beauty amongst the Gods. I have seen Aphrodite with her golden flowing locks, rosebud lips, pearlescent skin, and voluptuously curved physique, emanating power and seduction like a beacon. That is not me. I am only a mountain nymph, a small goddess. But I do have wiles of my own, and to a mortal who has never seen a Goddess...well, I am not without my charms.
" Greetings," he finally said. His voice was warm, almost honeyed. His gaze turned open and admiring as it roved over my nude body. I gnawed on my lower lip, feeling oddly uncomfortable as I stood there with my nakedness on full display. It had been so long since I had consorted with a mortal. I felt feral, strangely unhinged by his presence.
"Greetings," I mimicked back. My own voice was a flat breathy thing. I winced at the sound of it. I, who used to lure men into my arms with just a whisper, but now had no words of my own, could only throw his own words back at him. What a pitiful thing I had become.
"I hope I do not trepass upon your forest, lady." His eyebrow arched smoothly.
"Forest, lady," I murmured miserably, biting my lip harder as a flush crept into my cheeks. If I was not a fool, I certainly sounded one. I smiled weakly and gestured broadly, hoping to appear welcoming, praying I didn't seem a halfwit.
Trembling, I took a few small steps closer to him. I steeled myself, and struck what I hoped was an alluring pose. I was, after all, a nymph. Seduction was bred in me. If I wanted this man I would have him. He took my approach as an invitation and moved towards me with long confidant strides. He opened his mouth to speak, but I drew a finger to my lips. I would have him silent. I would spare myself the misery of one sided conversation. Then I took his hands in mine. They were large, hard calloused, made for warring and hunting. I drew them to my shoulders.
He took control from there, tracing my collar bone, skimming fingers over my bare breasts, circling my navel then planting his hands firmly on my hips. There was hunger in his eyes. I drew my tongue slowly over my lips. He was practiced in his motions as he drew me down onto the pine needle strewn carpet of the forest floor.
And so he took me, just as I had wanted him to. Perhaps it was a kind of revenge for me. Zeus had claimed and ravaged me, tricked and deceived me then left me to Hera's mercy... but even after all these long years, I still had powers of my own.
Afterwards, we lay in the twilight, my slight form curled into his muscular body as the sky shifted from bright scarlet to the purple of a bruise above us. He whispered sweet endearments into my ear, curled long tendrils of my hair around his fingers.
When we awoke, the sun was high in the sky, but it was a softer, gentler warmth than it had been in days past. Perhaps Helios had chosen to take pity on me, not wanting to jar me too roughly from the sweet dream I had found in this young mortal's arms.
So it was that he came to stay in my forest for a time. We would walk the forest trails. I showed him hidden places, the waterfalls that caught the light to form majestic rainbows, the dens where. red tailed fox pups tumbled gleefully with one another. He chattered endlessly to me, and though I could only respond in clipped mimicry, I listened avidly to his every word. He spoke only of himself and endlessly of himself. His name was Narcissus. He was the pride of his family, the strongest man in his town, the most handsome perhaps in all the lands. I did not mind. I loved him and envied him his words and his pride.
I wanted him to stay forever.
I feared that he would not.
I cannot say how long we traversed this enchanted forest side by side. Time moves differently in the realm of the Gods. It was long enough that I grew to know and cherish his every expression; the way his jaw muscle twitched when he concentrated, the way his smile spread slow and lazy across his face when he witnessed some new wonder. The only place I dare not bring him was my pool. From the day Hera had abandoned me here I could feel the heavy enchantment upon that spot. I knew not what foul spell she had cast upon the place, but I did not wish to expose him to it. Whenever he drew near, I would tug on his arm, or lace my fingers through his hair, draw him close to me, and lead him away.
Then one day, when the leaves had changed to red and gold, I awoke to find him gone. The autumn air was cold and damp and the cruel north wind was hissing in my ears, making my head pound. I waited for what felt like an eternity, arms wrapped around my naked chest, shivering as I clutched my narrow shoulders and silently begged every God in Olympia to return my love. But the Gods have long been deaf to me. How can one's pleas be heard when one does not have a voice?
When still he did not come, I got to my feet, wrapped myself in a shroud of tree moss against the chill air and set out to find him. I searched the forest until there was but place left to look. Fear coiled in my belly as I dragged myself disconsolately towards the enchanted pool. It was a secluded spot, far deeper in the woodlands than most mortals dared to venture. Narcissus was no ordinary mortal, though. He knew this forest nigh as well as I. Surely he'd noticed my hesitation, my little bits of trickery to keep him from that spot. I never imagined it would pique his curiosity so that he would venture there on his own.
I cursed Hera. If only I had my words I could have warned him away, could have explained why we dare not enter this one glade. As I drew closer, I began to run, padding quickly across the rock strewn path, clumsy and careless in my terror. Perhaps there was still time, time to sway him from this folly, time to use my charms to lure him away.
I bounded into the clearing where the slow trickling river fanned out into a wide still pool. Trees bowed their heads around the spot, casting shadows over the deep waters. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw him there, perched upon the bank beside the pool, gazing calmly into the water as lily pads drifted past. Naive thing that I was, I thought him safe. I thought whatever evil Hera had cast out upon this place had not infected him yet.
I was wrong. Just as Hera had said, I was a fool of nymph.
I ran to the place where he knelt gazing into the depths. I tugged at his arm gently at first, then harder. He brushed me aside as if I were a gnat, an irritation. I ran my fingers through his hair, kneaded his shoulders. Still, he did not glance away from the surface of the pool to acknowledge me.
Panic welled up, forming a lump that threatened to choke the breath out of my silent throat. I peered into the pool to see what it was that held him so rapt. It was only his own reflection, I realized, bemused. Yet he gazed at it with a lust and admiration in his eyes that had never been there when he looked upon me.
Desperate, I yanked his face towards mine, forcing him to meet my eyes. He cursed and spat, a glob of spittle stuck to my cheek.
"Foul witch," he muttered with such disgust that I felt as if my heart would crack to pieces in my chest.
"Foul Witch!" I threw my head back and shrieked it at the sky, at Hera, at Olympus. How dare they? How dare they take from me the only thing I held dear in eons?
He did not speak to me again. He did not look upon me again. Every day for weeks I silently raged and did all within my power to return him to me. I wrapped my body around him, tried every trick of the flesh I knew, all to no avail. He just gazed into those waters, his golden beauty slowly withering. I could only watch. I brought him all the delicacies the forest had to offer, to tempt him away from the waters. I plucked truffles and sweet greens from the earth. I strangled a beloved hare with my bare hands to bring him meat as I watched him grow frail and wasted. Still he stared at his reflection as if it were his one true love, even as he withered.
Autumn came and went, the leaves falling dead and brown from the trees to drift listlessly in the pool. Never though did they obscure my love's reflection.
Then came the day when I approached the pool bearing gifts of a roasted quail and summer onions. When I pushed aside the ferns and gazed out across the clearing, I did not see Narcissus crouched in his usual position.
I forcibly stopped my heart from leaping. By then he was but a husk of what he once was. Still l loved him dearly and would have cared for him for eternity if the Gods had allowed it.
They did not.
I cannot say whether Hera knew what trap she was laying when she cursed the pool. Perhaps she wished only to trap me, in my infinity vanity. We Oreads are known for our vanity. This, too, is in our blood. The punishment she ultimately meted out was far worse.
I crept into the field, knowing already what I would find. His body, emaciated, aged what seemed a hundred years, floated facedown in the water.
The tears seemed endless. I pulled the body of my mortal lover from the pool, and laid him down amongst the reeds. I smoothed his wet hair, once the color of sand and sun, now gone white as bone, back from his brow. I closed his watery eyes, once crystalline clear blue. I folded his arms, once well muscled, now skeletal across his cadaverous caged chest.
And when I left him to lie there I felt it build inside me until finally it had the power to break the enchantment. A long, high, keening cry. The only sound that is my own.
And so here I remain. Holding vigil over my lost lover's bones. A cry in the nigh, an echo in the forest, for the rest of time.