The lawn was buried with orange and brown oak leaves. More leaves clung to the branches above. It was mid-Fall. The breeze was cool, chilling Jordan’s bare legs as she stretched in the backyard. The leotard was thin against the Autumn cold, but practice would soon warm her limbs with the heat of her balance beam performance. And she lived for the performance on the balance beam.
Jordan kept her blonde hair shortly cropped, just like her Olympic hero, Kerri Strug, and just like Kerri Strug, Jordan was short. Also much like her heroine, Jordan was compact, stout, and compressed from years of gymnastic tumbling. She wanted to compete in the Olympics within three years, and she knew her strength lie on the balance beam. Her father had built this balance beam two years ago, for her thirteenth birthday, after much pleading and begging. He feared that she would harm herself in the yard. She said she needed more practice at home. Jordan’s father conceded, buying mats and setting them around the beam. These mats were now buried in leaves, much like the rest of the tree-columned yard. The yard itself was a mess. Her father had not raked it in a month. He had been too busy working overtime at the factory. And, with the exception of an acorn here and there, Jordan liked having the Autumnal detritus arrayed around her as she practiced. The leaves were jubilant in their colors and abundance, like tasteful confetti from a crowd that had recently passed through in celebration of her Olympic medal.
On the other hand, the thought of a loud crowd gave her conniptions. She did not like distraction. Cheers—real cheers from a live audience—did not energize her. She was not comfortable with her performance yet to perform for an audience and to feed off its energy. The good thing about living out in the woods—and not in the suburbs—was the silence. It allowed her to concentrate without distraction. That was not to say there was no ambience. The squirrels squabbled sometimes, and the birds chirped, but these sounds were negligible when she was focused.
Jordan stretched, warmed up, and mentally prepared herself. In time she felt ready to face the balance beam. She did not hesitate. Scattering the leaves with her bare feet, the young gymnast ran, vaulted, and wheeled gracefully onto the beam. She began her routine. It was an unbroken series of motions: tumbling, rolling, dipping, and rising into a handstand that halted near the end of the balance beam. Slowly wheeling over to grip the very edge with her toes, she then did a little hop to about-face, steadied and readied herself, then launched into a cartwheel, a back hand-spring, and concluded with a back-flip that triumphed with a peacock flaunt of the arms. It was all muscle-memory. She performed the series again, and then again. She felt like a squirrel as she went foot to hand to foot, vaulting and spinning and leaping and soaring. She felt like a bird, springing and kicking her legs out like the wings of a bird flapping toward the heights. Her soul was chimeric when she was performing gymnastics. The balance beam was a totem along which she traversed spirit animals with grand exultation. She focused her mind on breathing properly and concentrated her eyes on one spot while her body rotated about, so as to not make herself sick. Yet, the motion of the world still blurred and shifted in her vision, and she felt herself totter and sway with dizziness.
And so when she glimpsed the little man sitting on the bough above her, she nearly fell, halting and swinging her arms wildly like a cartoon character trying to fly after coming to the edge of a cliff. Regaining her balance, Jordan took a deep breath and exhaled, hands on her knees and her head feeling dizzy with the blurring motion. She was too heady. Blood beat in her ears like woodpeckers seeking worms. She was seeing things.
Or so she thought.
“What a lovely lass ye be,” a voice said.
Jordan looked up at the bough of the old oak tree. Head steadied now, she still saw the little man. He was real, to her surprise, and not just an image conjured by whirling motion and swirling vision.
“A lovely lass indeed! As an oak and a willow tree made as one! A dryad in the making!”
He was short and had orange hair—bright orange hair, like fire atop his head—and the freckles on his pale body flared like fire, too. A crown of antlers rose crookedly from his head. He wore a skirt of leaves, but, at such a high angle, the skirt did not conceal his furry deer legs, nor the genitals beneath the skirt. His priapism was comically large, and, as such, frightening to Jordan.
“What are you?” she demanded. It never occurred to her that the little man was a human being. Seeing him was like seeing a Unicorn or a Leprechaun: merely seeing them, though absurd, seemed to force the rational mind to surrender to the otherworldliness of it.
“What am I?” he says with a goat’s grin. “Why, ye say it as if I be what is unnatural, but, my lass, I am as natural as ye. And just as unique as ye.”
Jordan stood on the balance beam with her eyes averted from the little man. She could not look at him without looking at the obscene appendage beneath his skirt, and so she looked to the side, and only occasionally looked at him, just to verify that he was still sitting there; that he was still watching her with his lecher’s leer.
“What…do you want?” she whispered. She did not need to ask. She could see what he wanted. It was obvious.
“To ask ye what ye want,” he said.
“I want you to leave…” she whispered.
He stood up on the bough now, hooves apart, hands on his hips, arms akimbo, and the obscenity between his legs straight out at attention. He looked like an absurd Jolly Green Giant, only orange and pale and diminutive and lewd. He scratched his ear thoughtfully. It was the ear of a stag, not a man.
“I will leave,” he said, “if ye wish it. But in the depths of ye heart ye do not wish it so, my sweet dryad.”
Jordan looked at her house. Her father was still at work, and the windows were dark. Her mother lived with a boyfriend miles away from here. The nearest neighbor was a mile down the road. Jordan herself was no pushover, though. She had broad shoulders and arms stronger than most boys her age. She was an athlete, and though she was short, the orange-haired man was shorter. If she wanted to, she could kick hard as a horse.
Yet, his short stature made his obscenity seem all the larger by comparison. And there was a certainty in his grin, a self-assurance, and she did not feel the same confidence that he obviously felt. He seemed to have an invisible audience cheering him on, whereas the applause were silent for her.
Jordan’s indecision prompted the little man to speak.
“Ye seek the Flame, do ye not?” he said. “The old Greek Flame? The Flame of glory? The Flame of Olympus?”
“Flame?” she said, her mind awhirl with the iconic Olympic torch.
“Yes,” the little man said. “The Flame of olden days, and of days to come. It does not belong to the Greeks, nor to any one people. It is the Flame of Prometheus and Agni and Kagu-tsuchi and Loki and Gibil. It is the Flame of glory and celebration and…sacrifice.”
The last word he whispered. Jordan could barely discern it from the rustling of a squirrel amongst the distant leaves.
“Sacrifice?” she said. She fidgeted on the balance beam and, though she was merely standing still, she almost lost her balance. “What sacrifice?”
The little man’s grin spread wider. “Ye know of what it is I speak.” His orange eyes surveyed her, up and down, and he licked his lips. “Ye innocence.”
Jordan was wordless, oscillating on the beam. Unconsciously her hand adjusted her leotard, and the little man’s eyes grew wide with delight.
“Do ye wish to stand for years, my dryad,” he prodded her, “or do ye wish to fall from greatness? There is always a price. There is a price if ye do not feed the Flame. A bonfire is kindled for the village, and the world is nothing but giant villages now, my little leaflet. The bigger the villages, the bigger the bonfires, the bigger the Flame. From Marathon to Munich. Between the seasons of Beltane and Onsen and Burning Man and Thimithi, the Flame must be fed. The Feat must be done and the Flame must be fed. The season’s burning always returns.”
A chill in her bones made Jordan tremble. It was not the wind.
“Will ye bend or will ye break?” the little man wondered aloud, scratching the hairs on his chin. “And for what? Ye innocence slips away even now, so why not surrender it for a greater gain?”
“I will earn my place on my own,” she said. Her voice seemed tenuous in that Autumnal silence, as if it had been drowned beneath the cheer of an audience to which she was somehow deaf and blind.
“Pride precedes the Fall,” the little man said, his grin disappearing. “Just as Summer precedes the Fall. How confident humans are in the splendor of warm days and ample food!” He grinned again, maliciously now. “How bitter they feel when the cold winds rake at their starving ribs. Wouldn’t ye rather be a dryad than a mere human being? Wouldn’t ye rather be eternal than brief as a leaf? Dryads grow on Mt. Olympus, my lass, but no mere woman may go there unless she offers a god something of value.” Again he eyed her thighs, and the place between them where the leotard pinched. “The summit of Olympus is good soil, my lass.”
“No!” she gasped, finding her throat choked with fear…and sadness.
He shrugged, then turned as if to leave. Much to her own horror, Jordan called out to him.
He grinned at her over his pale, freckled shoulder. Seeing his grin, she felt her resolve grow stronger. Her momentary weakness gave way to anger.
“I will succeed on my own,” she said. “I don’t need you. I have talent. I have skills and heart and passion!”
“So do thousands of other lasses,” he says. “But they grow no more than as saplings before wilting away into obscurity. Some are no more than acorns, stagnant and squandered in unfertile soil.”
The little man laughed, then stepped off the branch. He did not fall, nor did he fly away. He simply disappeared into the orange leaves like he never was.
As soon as the little man vanished Jordan forgot about him. She wondered how she had gotten off the balance beam and came to be standing in the leaves. Something else bothered her, too, but she did not know what it was. She could not remember.
Taking a deep breath, Jordan hopped back up onto the balance beam and walked to and fro, trying to shake the strange chills she felt in her limbs. The fire seemed to have gone out of her. She did some warm-up exercises, trying to rekindle it. All around her the trees were orange and fluttered as if aflame, yet the chill breeze stiffened her limbs. The cold stiffness clamped at her neck and shoulders and hips and knees. The icy claws dug in and clutched at her sinews and her tendons, tightening around her muscles and her bones.
Still, she persisted. She shook out her joints, warmed her limbs, and steadied her breath. She walked across the balance beam as if in a firewalking ritual. A matchstick struck against her heart and flared to life. The warmth spread and she felt her skin grow hot against the cool winds. Energized with heat, she renewed her practice, channeling her whole soul into her routine. She exulted in her speed and technique. She triumphed in her passion aglow with her own inner fire.
The stiffness was sudden and excruciating, seizing the arch of her foot with a paroxysm of pain. She felt her foot spasm with an arthritic grip, felt her body flail wildly as she lost her balance and, with her accrued momentum, tumbled off the beam. She then felt the impact of her head on the leaf-strewn lawn, felt the snapping of her neck, and then, at last, felt nothing at all. She was a broken sapling crumpled upon the ground. Somewhere in the flaming leaves overhead she heard a little man’s laughter. It was the last sound she heard as her hopes and dreams extinguished on the summit of Mt. Olympus.