Chapter 18 of 21. If you haven’t read the earlier chapters, please read them first. You can find them here: The Willow, a serialized novel.
Though he occasionally rested in pride at feats of deceit, Travis mostly fluctuated between irritation and anger. Seeing Willow standing before him in a conquering stance, sent rage flowing though him. Travis could feel his body start to tremble as anger boiled over at the sound of her voice, “They’re coming.” He started rushing forward even before he had any idea what he was going to do. He rammed both hands into Willows shoulders, pushing her across the room until she slammed into the wall on the other side of the cabin. Letting go, he allowed her body to fall to the ground, and curl into a pile on the floor.
Looking down at Willow, he had an instant of introspection and could see himself seething over her body like a mad dog. He knew that he looked crazy, and that he was always on the edge, but sometimes he had to let the crazy out. Sometimes he had to use his crazy to show who the boss was. And Willow needed to know that he was indeed unleashed and capable of anything.
As he glared at Willow, though her body laid still, powerless on the floor, Travis watched as a small smile spread over her lips. The smile was only big enough for him to see. For Travis, it was a declaration of war. She was playing games with him. She was trying to mess with his head. Willow knew that he was the one that was going to decide how this all played out. He was the only one capable of destroying her. He was the only one that would take pleasure in bringing about her end.
Travis collected himself, realizing that Willow always had a plan. From the moment they had taken her from the farmhouse, she had stayed calm and collected. Willow had always appeared to be the one in control. Knowing that Gabriel and Russell harbored some amount of respect for her, Travis realized that she must be trying to tap into that; trying to sow the seeds of descent in their ranks.
“How does it feel,” Willow whispered, “knowing that your story is almost over? Knowing that everything you’ve worked for has brought you to this point? Knowing that in the end you are just a dog without a master, purposeless?
“It won’t work woman,” said Travis under his breath as he spat on her in disgust. “Not as long as I am here.”
When they heard a knock coming from inside of the cabin, the three men froze. Willow had never initiated contact with them before. Though they had spoken with her on previous occasions, she was always responding to what they had said. Although she always looked at them directly in the eyes, and never backed down, she was never the aggressor, or the instigator.
Dave had told them that Willow used to pray out loud as if singing them to sleep at night. But only the guards that, before the revolt, lived inside of the cabin had ever seen that side of her. Now those guards were all dead. For Gabriel, Russell, and Travis, these were all just stories, because Willow never showed them anything but silent contempt. For a moment, Russell wondered if there was someone else on the other side of the door. Finally, Gabriel pushed the door open to find Willow standing before them, defiant.
Confused and trying to conceptualize what he was seeing, Russell couldn’t hear what Willow was saying. In the haze, it sounded as if she were talking under water, although she was clearly toying with them. It had been years since he had seen her in the flesh. She was a grown woman now. Her hair hung nearly to her knees and she did indeed look like a weeping willow tree: majestic, with a sad strength about her. Her skin was pitch black and she wore a one-piece tan loose-fitting dress that fell to her ankles. Russell wondered if Gabriel had given that to her. Dave must have bought it. No way that it would have come from Travis.
As Russell was lost in her beauty, his trance was suddenly broken when Travis began pushing Willow across the floor. Taken aback, Russell’s mouth hung open in surprise. They knew never to touch the hi-borns. That was Matthew’s rule. And here was Travis, brutalizing her.
“Enough!” yelled Russell, but he wondered if Travis could even hear him. Travis looked like a crazed animal, with the taste of blood and fresh meat between its teeth.
As chaos erupted around him, Gabriel held firm. He had to be the calming influence. Gabriel knew that their only chance for success was in sticking together. He was their leader. He was the last hope of the Guardians. Everything that they had ever stood for was resting on his shoulders.
Seeing Willow in the flesh always complicated things. He knew with his mind that the Guardians were a noble cause, and couldn’t understand why his heart always flowed towards her. But he had given his life for this mission, God’s mission, and was not about to give up on it now.
With Russell screaming at Travis to stop abusing Willow, Gabriel knew he had to act fast to bring his remaining soldiers in line.
“We are it!” yelled Gabriel.
All eyes were on him now.
“We are all that there is left. With Matthew gone, we are the last line of defense, to save the path that God laid out thousands of years ago. It all comes down to this moment; the old guard against a new age of anything goes religion.”
Gabriel and Russell watched as Travis and Willow exchanged words under their breaths.
“Travis!” yelled Matthew, louder than he had meant to. “Get out of the cabin. Do not engage. That’s been our rule for years. That was Matthew’s rule. To him, at least, you should stay true.”
As Travis walked out of the cabin, cursing under his breath, Gabriel allowed himself one final look at Willow. Gabriel allowed himself to take in her beauty one last time, before gathering his strength to slam the door in a show of disgust.
Alone again in the darkness, Willow stood up and brushed herself off. She moved to her spot in the center of the floor, the same spot where she’d spent more than fifty years, and sat down. With her legs crossed and her spine perfectly straight, Willow let her eyes roll back in her head as she drifted into meditation.
However this was going to end, she would always be able to rest in herself. But Willow knew that the world was at a crossroads and if she it was possible, she needed to get her message out there. She would let humanity know that they were all just talking in circles, fighting over things that didn’t even matter. She would convince them that God was not interested in their simple obedience, but sought their engaged compassion for all of creation, loving everyone and everything as their own. If it wasn’t meant to be – if Willow’s people were not able to free her – then they would all die silently in the woods, lost to history, as if they had never even lived at all.
I’ll see you next Friday for chapter 19.
Featured artwork by Aleksandra Kerzhentceva.