The Woman in the Roundabout

Submitted into Contest #155 in response to: Set your story in a kids’ playground, or at a roundabout.... view prompt

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Urban Fantasy Inspirational Fiction

Only one person knew about the antlered woman living in the roundabout. But they didn’t know quite yet, and she didn’t quite live there, exactly. She just visited every night, sitting with her back against the circle of sad pine trees, watching the people of earth revolve around her like self-absorbed planets or silly little yo-yos on invisible strings. 

The woman wasn’t from here. She could have been, I suppose, but she probably wasn’t. 

A month ago (according to some), the woman was wandering her maze of glacial caves with her caribou, hunting cloudberries and humming idly as she did most days, when she noticed a rather random pine tree standing alone at the back of the cave. Naturally, she approached the dendroidal oddity for the purposes of further investigation, completely unaware that her caribou were now happily consuming the basket of cloudberries she had set on the ground. Upon closer examination, she noticed a little door-shaped carving in the bark of the trunk, half-obscured by layers of bluish, bottlebrush needles.

When she touched the carving—as so many of us would do in this scenario—she was instantly transported, her very atoms scooped up and tossed into the cosmos like a handful of glitter. When she opened her eyes, she found herself no longer in a peaceful glacial cave, but a loud and smelly forest. Well, forest is an overstatement. There were only eleven evergreens, huddled together in a circle, protected (and/or imprisoned) by a moat of solid tar and a swarm of clamorous circling monsters. 

The clash of noise and scent and motion was overwhelmingly chaotic and simply horrendous. Like being inside a churning stomach on a ship in churning waters. The woman was terrified. Frantically, she searched the surrounding trunks for the only thing she thought might grant her escape: a little carving of a door that matched the one she saw in the cave. When finally she found it, she practically hugged the tree into which it was carved in an act of pure desperation. In less than half a second, she was back with her caribou—neither of which seemed to notice she’d left—pine needles from another world tangled in her hair.

That night, as the antlered woman lay in her canopied canoe, drifting to and fro in the arctic pond she called a bedroom, she found she wasn’t tired. The flashes of memory from her brief but momentous adventure were too bright. They were keeping her awake. 

Curiosity appeared at the edge of the water then, dipping its head down to drink. It looked at her the way a deer might look at you if you both believed in spirit guides. Without a second thought, she followed it. 

It led her back to the cave where she found the carving of the door once more. With a steadying breath and a hesitant glance over her shoulder, she touched it again. 

The other world was dark, just like hers, but the stars were much dimmer, and the air much warmer, almost sticky. She was relieved to find it quieter than before. Peering out from between the huddle of trees, she saw only the moat of solid tar, waveless and worn. Curiosity nudged her forward until she was right at the edge of the grass, on her belly, inspecting the rough surface of the solid, motionless river. It tasted like salt and dust.

So entranced by the phenomenon beneath her fingertips, she didn’t hear the beast until it was upon her. A pair of bright yellow eyes lit up the night, growing ever larger, ever closer, headed straight (but at a curve) for her. 

She jumped back just as the thing whizzed past, then watched, panic-panting, as it disappeared into the darkness. What an odd and terrifying (and loud) creature, she thought. Still, she felt a pang of pity for the beast, for it had obviously fallen behind the rest of the herd. She could hear it grumbling in the distance, hurrying to catch up.

Once her heart rate returned to normal, the promise of comfort whispered behind her, beckoning her back to the trees. She didn’t take but two steps before another light-eyed creature approached the mouth of the moat. Crouching in the shadows, she watched. 

It was red, its edges coated in what looked like dried blood, as if it had just narrowly escaped a battle. It slowed as it neared the circle, just enough for the woman to take notice of something so shocking she nearly fell over. Inside the windowed belly of this bloodied, light-eyed beast was a living person. Not only that, but the living person appeared completely composed despite being trapped inside this mechanical monster. 

The woman was baffled. So baffled that she remained there until morning, arms crossed round her knees, back against a tree, watching the creatures come and go, counting the living people inside them. 

When the sun finally rose, she thought of her caribou back home and how they would be wanting their breakfast soon. With one last look at the strange scene around her, she disappeared back into the trees, found the carving of the door, and was swiftly teleported home. 

As you might expect, the woman came back the next night, and the night after that. She’d sit and watch the herd of monsters as they growled and even sometimes shouted at each other, moving in sync like a school of fish or birds, entering and exiting the swarm from one of four branches. She felt like the center of a whirlpool, the conductor of a ceaseless current. 

What intrigued her most were the living people, the prisoners trapped inside the beasts. There were old people, young people, loud people, sad people. People with other people, people with pets, some eating, some crying, some singing. It was confusing and chaotic; a strange, living painting made of moving strokes of sound, color, and smell. But every night, after the chaos died down, one constant appeared: the little red monster, still bloodied from battle. 

Every night, at approximately 2:22 (according to some), the tired beast would arrive from the east, slow down a bit, then follow the curve of the north branch into oblivion, muffled symphonic music radiating from inside. Over time, she grew fond of this little musical monster, this bloodied beast who had fallen behind. 

But one night, as the creature approached the moat, there was no music to be heard. Concerned, the woman watched closely as something she didn’t think possible unfolded before her. 

The little beast stopped, heart humming, eyes shining. Then a square-shaped wound opened up in the monster’s side, and the living person climbed out through it. They stood on two legs, just like her. Legs which started to pace past the gaping, bloodless wound, their funny-looking feet making strange clicking sounds on the surface of the river. 

Then, out of the blue, the living person chucked a small box across the moat in an obvious display of rage. The box sprung open, and a small glinting ring came tumbling out, stopping with a final defeated twirl at the woman’s feet. 

The living person yelled at nothing and everything, shaking the still air, then sighed and leaned against the monster’s body, just as defeated as the ring. They held their face in their hands for a moment, ran their hands through their hair, then stared at their feet. 

After a moment, the living person trudged across the moat to where they’d thrown the tiny box, searching the surrounding area for the ring, grumbling like the monster from which they’d emerged. 

When they finally found it, their eyes traveled from the glinting ring to the pair of feet just above it. 

The woman could feel the weight of the person’s gaze as they stared. They stared for so long she wondered if time itself had stopped. But eventually, the living person raised their hand, slowly, apprehensively, and said, “Hello.”

“Hello,” said the woman. 

Now, I know what you’re thinking. The antlered woman is potentially from a different world, so it’s quite unlikely she would speak the same language as the living person. But this is a story, and what are stories if not the best places for quite unlikely occurrences?

“You all right?” the living person asked. 

“Yes,” said the woman. “Are you?”

“I’ve been better.” They paused. “What are you doing, exactly?” 

The woman looked around as if she might find the answer crawling about like a bug on a rock. “Sitting,” she finally said. 

“Are you lost?” said the living person, taking a step closer. 

“No,” said the woman. “Are you?”

The living person chuckled. “Yeah, actually. I think I am.”

A moment full of nothing but crickets and the monster’s humming heart passed between them. 

“What’s that on your head?” asked the living person. 

The woman’s hands moved to her antlers. “They’re my antlers.”

“Are they…real?”

“Yes.”

“Is that why you’re hiding? Because you have antlers?”

This confused the woman. “I don’t understand.”

The living person shifted their weight. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Elen. According to some.”

“I’m Morgan. Nice to meet you.”

The woman smiled. “Why are you lost, Morgan?”

Morgan looked down at the box in their hand, then off into the distance, down the river. “I was wrong about something I thought was right. That’s why.” 

The woman waited a moment, then rose to her feet. In three graceful steps, she reached the edge of the grass. 

“You take the same path every night, Morgan,” said the woman. “Perhaps you should try a different path instead.” She pointed toward another branch of the river. 

Morgan looked down the road, then back at her, then back down the road. “Perhaps you’re right,” they said. 

When Morgan looked back at the trees, the woman was gone. All that was there was the roundabout. A huddle of trees, a circle of asphalt, and their rusty old car behind them, sitting idle and alone. 

“Elen?”

When there was no response, Morgan got back into their car. They chucked the tiny box with the ring in it in the glove compartment, took one final look at the place where the antlered woman had just been, then drove away. Down the different path.

As it happens, Morgan got a flat tire five miles later. And who, of all people, should be driving by at that exact time? Why, it was Morgan’s true love, of course. This is a story, after all. 

As for Elen, she went back to picking cloudberries with her caribou. The tree in the cave had disappeared, but she was all right with that. She felt she had seen what she needed to see and said what she needed to say. 

A little while later (according to some), the antlered woman was on a snowy beach below her glacier, harvesting lichen from the ice rocks, when she spotted a rather random oak tree out in the water. At the same time, curiosity appeared in the surf and looked at her the way a deer might look at you if you both believed in spirit guides. Without a second thought, she followed it.

July 19, 2022 21:52

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5 comments

Karen C
21:27 Jul 30, 2022

Hi Kasey, thanks for sharing your story! It's one of the stories that was sent to me to review for the Critique Circle. I really enjoyed reading this. I'm not a big fantasy reader, but your descriptions were so intriguing. I love how you personified (is that the right word?) Curiosity. I also loved imagining the caribou and the basket of cloudberries. The phrase where the car "had obviously fallen behind the rest of the herd" made me smile! The only thing that really stuck out to me as far as a correction: At the very beginning, you say ...

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Kasey Kirchner
00:03 Jul 31, 2022

Thanks so much for your comments and kind words, Karen!

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Sheba Grayson
17:13 Jul 28, 2022

Such a fun story and so engaging! The pace of the story is perfect, and the imagery, while fantasy, is presented in an easily relatable manner. I'm definitely interested in Elen's next adventure.

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Kasey Kirchner
00:04 Jul 31, 2022

Thank you so much, Sheba! Perhaps Elen will have to make another appearance soon:)

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Rabab Zaidi
10:08 Jul 24, 2022

Interesting.

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