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in uncharted territories

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The eyes stuck in Marco’s mind. The eyes had been at least as big as peaches - no, the irises had been at least as large as peaches, the same color as a perfect summer peach too. The pupils had flashed like gold coins. The sclera had been electric blue, robin’s egg blue, a rare blue. Blue like glacier ice, which he’d only seen in photos.

Marco’s class was learning about geography today. He put a photo of a glacier on a projector screen. “Can anyone tell me what this is?” He was off his game, usually would have had the class farther along by now. He kept thinking about how the school was in the center of town, while his house was on the edge of town. It was not a large town. It was a short bike ride to school, usually. Not a problem, usually.

The students could sense his inattention. He kept looking at the windows, thinking about that late-night walk. A house on the edge of town had seemed perfect for when he had trouble sleeping, quiet in the first place, the woods right there.

Students were reading under the table (fine), making strange crafts of their own design (a paper cup on its side, a paper under it, Elmer’s glue inside the cup and puddled outside it, on the paper - a prop of spilled milk? - at least the student wasn’t gluing it to his desk - fine - ), staring out the window. Fine. His reliable ones were watching him. They could feel he was off even if he couldn’t tell why. Lucy raised her hand when he looked at her.

“It’s a glacier. We saw one on our cruise to Alaska.”

“Very good.” Marco tried to shake it off, the memory of those eyes, the skinned face, the body so dark and shapeless it had melted into the darkness of the evening, the darkness of the woods.

At the end of the day Andrew presented him with a drawing, clumsy figures of humans and a whole lot of red crayon. That would be spilled blood, no doubt.

“It’s a hero who killed the serial killers,” Andrew told him. What was the kid watching? “It’s for you.”

It was Marco’s personal policy to be gracious when his students gave him gifts. “Thank you,” he said, with all the sincerity he could muster.

“Good luck,” Andrew said, before he grabbed his backpack and slipped into the stream of departing students.

---

Usually he would have stayed late for grading. Friday afternoon, he always enjoyed the school when it was quiet, feeling the space without children in it. This Friday, he stuffed his backpack with papers and biked home well before it got dark.

His house was little. A little stamp of a yard, the grass short and grey. No flowers. A maple tree, deep red now with autumn, dropped leaves spangling his colorless front yard like jewels. He felt so lucky the leaves weren’t orange. The front of the house and its yard faced the street, other small houses, families with better yards and more kids. The back of his house faced the woods.

It would be all right. “The most likely encounter to go wrong,” Marco said, to bolster himself, “Would be the first one.”

Then again, it could have been shock on both parts that prevented the scenario from getting worse.

Marco sat at the table to grade his papers, buzzing through the work. Well, he wouldn’t have that distraction for the weekend days. He reheated leftovers for dinner, and when he crawled into bed, set up his laptop so he could binge Netflix as a lullaby.

When he woke up his computer screen was dark. His house was quiet, that had been one of the selling points; he didn’t sleep well with lots of road noise or loud neighbors. He was too hot, his t-shirt was stuck to his back with sweat. Why had he woken up? The room was pitch dark. Nothing was happening.

The memory hit him between the eyes: it hadn’t seemed like a narrow escape at the time. The house on the edge of the velvet-dark woods. Was he safe? His heart was jumping like a grasshopper, his palms radiated heat.

Marco tried to roll over, relaxed enough he’d be randomly shifting in his sleep.

He’d never bothered buying curtains for his bedroom window. It faced the woods. It didn’t seem necessary.

Polo’s enormous golden pupil shone in the dark of the room like a full moon. The iris around it blazed like tangerine peel. The sclera was bright too, as bright as it had been in the woods, daylight-sky blue.

His heart seemed like it had probably transubstantiated to steam. Polo. Polo. Polo. His tongue glued itself to the roof of his mouth. It felt like that saved him.

As he watched the beast, Marco became aware he could hear something too: a gentle scrape, scrape, scrape, the sound a claw tracing over window-glass might make. Spindly fingers like bare twigs could make a sound like that. Those hands had moved gracefully in the woods, as difficult as they were to pick out in the dark, as Polo touched thumb to fingertip, or touched a thoughtful finger against the sharp points of his incisors.

This was the fear of the mouse in the bolthole, Marco was suddenly sure. Specifically the moment when the mouse poked its head out to say good morning and saw the luminous eye of the cat already there, already waiting for it.

But he was a human, not a mouse. Moreover, he was a teacher, and he managed classes of thirty children, at least.

Polo was a thinking, reasoning being. A being who’d wanted his soul. Marco didn’t know exactly what Polo was, even if he had a solid guess. He didn’t know what exactly Polo was capable of (although he could probably build a sound hypothesis - Marco did know some stories about the kinds of beings that looked for souls). But, as he laid in bed and nothing happened, it started to seem like doing nothing would probably not solve his problem.

Feeling terribly unsafe, Marco pushed the covers down to his waist and rolled over, putting one foot on the floor. It was cold.

Polo blinked at him, a cat’s blink where the eye never quite fully closed. Between the brightness of Polo’s eyes and the dim light in Marco’s room, Marco could pick out absurdly long, fuzzy eyelashes as Polo did this.

The scraping stopped.

Marco’s bedside clock revealed the time was 3:10 in the morning. He got up and went to the window.

They were now closer then they’d been in the woods, separated only by a pane of glass. Marco pulled the window up with a scrape that felt absurdly loud and Polo’s fingers insinuated themselves over the windowsill like spider legs. Cold air invited itself in the room as well, and Marco shivered as it washed him over, bringing in the spicy smell of wet leaves, and an odor, well, slightly like wet dog, and slightly like woodsmoke. A strange smell.

“Good evening,” Marco said, catching himself before he said the name.

“Good evening,” said Polo, ducking his head down. Those luminous eyes glanced back and forth, taking in the room. The bedroom was on the second storey. Polo was taller than Marco would have thought.

“I’m sorry,” Marco said, slipping into the reasonable tone he used with his students. “I told you, I didn’t want to get rid of my soul last night - I should have been clearer. I would actually rather not get rid of my soul at all.”

Polo blinked again, the same blink, where his eyes became crescent-moon slices of brightness without ever disappearing completely. The woods beast made a noise, a chirr, Marco found the word from somewhere. “But it would be helpful to me if you changed your mind, ” Polo said. That voice was so strange, like the rush of the wind in the trees. Marco became hyperaware of every goosebump raised on his arm, the hairs quivering, feeling the breeze, the big, undeniable presence, of this creature. “I brought you something, a gift, that I hope might make you reconsider.”

“Look, there’s a back porch,” said Marco. Polo filled up the window, there was no way to get around him and point. “You know - it’s, uh, it’s the wooden thing that’s close to the ground sticking out of the back of my house, with the barbecue on it.”

Did Polo know what a house was? Did he know what a barbecue was?

“If you’ll give me just a minute, I’ll put on a coat and meet you down there. Are you a tea drinker?”

Internally Marco screamed. Ingrained politeness was a burden and a trial. His mother would have been so proud of him, between fumigating the house with holy water, beating him with a shoe, and taking a broom to Polo.

“I like tea,” Polo said, his voice coming out as an enormous sigh, the released breath of an entire forest. “With honey, please.” His fingers unclasped from the window and his great head slid out of immediate view.

In the absence of the monster, Marco’s heart seemed to have returned to him. He realized he’d preferred its vanished state, because now he was extremely aware of every single one of its beats.

Now he had to do it.

He pulled on a hoodie and jeans, and went downstairs.

Polo was loafed up on his porch, much smaller now than he’d seemed when he was stretched up to Marco’s bedroom window. That was definitely a deer skull, they were thick in the woods around here, he needed to Google deer skull, learn the parts. Marco waved and drifted toward the kitchen then toward the double sliding doors facing his back porch, back towards the kitchen, back towards the doors, which won: it would be horrendously rude to shut his guest out on the porch and prepare tea without making small talk.

He is not a guest! Marco remembered to scream at himself as he went to the doors and slide one all the way open, and then the screen door too, because if Polo wanted to come crashing through that he almost certainly could. He is a demon! He invited himself to your doorstep!

But it was too late, it was done. Polo was at least a ten pointer, definitely more than thirteen inch spread, Marco had ample opportunity to study his antlers as Polo stuck his head into Marco’s living-slash-dining area. Marco hit the electric kettle to boil and moved on autopilot collecting mugs, tea bags, cream, sugar, honey.

Polo was fully in the room. “Mind your head,” Marco said, before he could stretch up and punch holes in the ceiling. “I’ll be right with you -”

“Just as I was told, the air human homes is stale and still,” Polo said. He backed out, ducking his head to avoid the doorframe. Marco breathed a sigh of relief. The smell of Polo and the woods was all in his house, but - the woods had always smelled good to him, and whatever Polo contributed didn’t make it smell worse.

The kettle boiled. Extremely aware that he was being observed, Marco filled two mugs and dropped a bag of chamomile in each. He rustled up a tray, banged spoons onto it, arranged mugs and the honey bear, and hustled the affair outside, setting it on his porch table and taking a seat. Polo sat on his haunches, took a mug (which looked very tiny in his hands), and lifted the bag curiously.

“This is tea?”

“Yeah,” Marco said, feeling nervous again, wondering if he’d committed a faux pas. “Some people like loose leaves, but I don’t have a lot of time - uh, you know about tea?”

“I know tea well.” Polo ate his tea bag.

Marco stared. “Can I - can I get you another one?”

“Is this not how this is done? I was told tea leaves were eaten by humans.”

“They are… but… not usually like this.” Who was telling Polo these things? Marco got up. “I’ll get you another one.”

He brought the whole box, for good measure, and made it back to his chair just in time to catch Polo turning the honey bear over in his hands, staring at it.

“Here, let me -”

Polo relinquished the bear with ease. Marco showed him how to pop open the top and squeezed honey generously into Polo’s mug before opening another tea bag and dropping it in. Polo took the bear in turn and sat up, tilting his head back in the exact way a human would to chug a soda.

It turned out Polo, on top of everything else that was terrifying about him, had appropriately monstrous grip strength; the bear container wheezed and squeaked as Polo bore down on it. When he set the bear back down on the table it slowly started to reform to its regular bear shape and never quite made it there.

Fine. That was fine. Marco dunked his tea bag, sipped. It had not really steeped long enough, but the hot water felt good against his hands and throat.

“Humans can eat tea leaves,” he said after drinking. “These are tea bags. The leaves get, uh, minced up, and put inside the tea bag so it’s convenient for steeping. Some humans use dried tea leaves to make tea, but, uh, I don’t really have the time to get into that and I’m more of a coffee drinker. Where did you learn about tea?”

“The windriders told me,” Polo said, as if this were a totally normal thing anyone could just say.

“What are those?” Marco said politely.

“Spirits and beasts of the wind. Some types of bird.”

What the fuck type of bird, Marco thought, but then Polo was lifting a rather beautiful woven basket to the table. It was full of mushrooms, some of them still smirched with dirt, but also wrapped in cornhusks were bright berries and also an entire fresh river trout, now quite dead, gleaming with rainbows even just in the moonlight.

“These are for you,” Polo said, looking at him… expectantly?

The last time he’d gutted a fish, Marco had been nine, but he remembered how it was done. He had no way of knowing whether the foraged mushrooms and berries were dangerous at so brief a glance though.

“Thank you?” Marco said, and for lack of knowing what else to do, he picked up the box of chamomile teabags and offered it to Polo in return.

The beast stared at him. Those eyes nearly sizzled. He took the box gracefully, tucking it in one hand as he drained the last of the honeyed water from his mug, and then he rose, Marco becoming aware again of the different in their presences as he did so - Polo was as dark as the night sky and there was no gleam to him at all, his dense fur seemed to drink up the light; the only way to pick him out was by the light gleaming on that skull and the flash of his eyes.

“I will return,” he said, and replaced the mug on the table. He moved off the porch so fluidly it was as if he’d rolled.

“Goodbye?!” Marco managed. Then Polo was gone into the trees in a flicker as if he’d never been.

Marco found a casserole tray for the fish and went back to bed.

---

The weekend was quiet. Marco went to the school a couple times to work. He prepared the week’s Daily WOW!s, daily powerpoint warm-ups to start the day and make children in the second and third grade brackets say wow. They were simple one or two slide affairs talking about an interesting animal, or a science fact, sometimes related to what they were working on and sometimes not.

For this week’s daily wows he settled on ice worms, how selective breeding had changed the watermelon, tapetum lucidum, the weight of clouds, and the Kyrgyzstan world nomad games.

He did not go for any walks in the woods.

He successfully fried the fish.

---

For two weeks there was no sign of Polo. Marco debated skipping town and decided he wouldn’t. He had a job and a life here. He debated buying curtains for his bedroom window and didn’t. Keeping any interactions with Polo friendly seemed like a smart idea, and being watched had been unsettling and pretty boundary-crossing, actually, but it seemed likely Polo didn’t actually know that.

As nothing happened, Marco started to wonder if the strange had drifted out of his life as unexpectedly as it had arrived.

On a Wednesday night they had a Winter’s Around the Corner Fall Festival. Students grades K through 5 picked out rubber ducks with dabs of nail polish on their bottoms from a pool, and received color-coded prizes in exchange. Fishing rods with clothespins instead of hooks were supplied, and students “fished” across a screen, hiding the volunteer parent clipping candy and stickers in the clothespin on the other side. A wholesome night of fun for the ten and under crowd.

Marco himself manned the cake walk, toggling music on and off while students marched around hoping for the winning numbers. He was enjoying a lapse in the action when one of his parents approached him.

“So you must be Marco! We hear so much about how wonderful you are!”

“Good evening, Alysha,” Marco said. His soft-spoken personality had been pointed out as one of his potential selling points in school, as was his general aura of poise and knowing what he was doing. The latter helped the former and was useful with parents too so he let himself smile. “I love seeing Donovan every day too. Is he having a good time tonight?”

“We won a Lego set from the duck tank, so I’m guessing yes.” Alysha offered him a plastic plate of chocolate-chip cookies and Marco accepted with inner glee. Alysha was a bake sale legend.

“I wanted to check in on how you’re adjusting to town! We hear such good things, and I know everyone’s happy, but, you know, it’s hard moving out to the sticks from the big city…”

“I don’t mind it quiet.” Marco peeled back the saran wrap and snuck out a cookie, offered it to Alyssa before taking one of his own. “It’s nice to be close to nature again. We used to go on fishing trips when I was a kid but it’s been a long time.”

“Bet you don’t go deer hunting either, huh?”

“Never.” He was a little squeamish about it, if he was honest. He’d liked fishing, but hated gutting the fish.

“It’s pretty popular out here! Brad always goes, we’ll start taking Donovan when he gets a little older. We’ll have to pack up some meat for you. It’s traditional, you know. The woods around here are good to us.”

“Good hunting?”

“Good hunting and good luck. No kids ever get lost and our hunters always come back safe, well, if they cross their t’s and dot their i’s.”

Under the fluorescent lights of the gym, listening to sneakers squeak across the wooden floors, the forest and Polo seemed very hard to say. Marco made sure his most placid smile was cemented on.

“It’s a little dangerous, isn’t it? No reception, I mean… I hope it never happens but all you’d need is a wrong slip…”

“Most things are dangerous if you do them wrong, or treat them wrong. Pay attention, use your common sense, be respectful of everything you find out there. You’ll be alright.”

Alyssa had very blue eyes and her smile was as good as his. They looked at each other, eye to eye, and Marco could not be sure if he detected a depth or if it was just his imagination.

“Any advice for a newbie?”

“Welllll, my girlfriends say when you take something from the woods, you should always give a gift in return, like a little token or even a nice word.” Alyssa laughed. Her eyes skidded away from his. “I like some of that woo stuff, what can I say?”

“I think it’s pretty nice,” Marco said, and then Polaris was pulling at his sleeve and insisting the kids had waited long enough for the next leg of the cake walk to start.

---

Marco Googled disappearances for the town.

It turned out there was nothing suspicious on record. Unfortunate things from the past, tracked down to locals or, as far as Marco could guess, the result of accidents; someone slipping when they explored a ravine, who hadn’t done the right prep before going out in the woods alone. A hiker killed by a black bear. If something else was happening to people, soul-stealing, for example, he wouldn’t know what to look for.

The woods around town did seem prosaically safe.

---

It snowed, deep and muffling white, the world piled in feathers. Marco took his car, barely used in clement weather, to school.

Night became brighter with snow on the ground. The snow threw lampglow back, and moonglow. His bedroom window was a rectangle filled with darkness that felt luminous, although it wasn’t, and depthless, and cast in a bright patch of moonlight on his floor, when the angle was right.

Christmas break drew closer. Marco made no plans to leave town.

No strange footprints appeared outside his house. Odd, to feel disappointed about it. It was too cold to stay there for long but Marco sat on his back porch and watched the woods. Finally, one early evening, without thinking about it, he packed a full honey bear and a container of loose leaf chamomile and walked out into the woods.

Snow grunted under his boots. It was quiet otherwise. Under the street lights, a thousand tiny flecks of brightness would glow in the snow; nothing like that out here, but the pallor of the snow made everything stand out. It wasn’t hard to make his way.

“Helloooooo!” Marco called, when he felt he was well enough away from the houses.

“Marco,” the strange voice boomed back to him.

“Helloooooo!”

“Marcooo!”

He stumbled onwards, startled though he’d known it was coming when the dark shape swept out of the trees upon him. Somehow it seemed like Polo moved over the snow quieter, his fur or feathers, whatever they were, ate up the sound just like fresh snow.

“I came to say hi,” Marco said, and raised his offerings. “I brought you gifts.”

“You didn’t come to give me your soul?”

“Not tonight.”

Impossible to tell whether Polo was disappointed.

“I’m just checking in.” Marco shook his gifts gently, and Polo finally took them. He passed each thing into his fur, where they disappeared.

“Checking in?”

Marco put his hands in his pockets and experimentally started walking. Polo swept along beside him. It was so still around except for them. “Yeah. You hadn’t come by in a while, so I wanted to see how you were doing, and, uh, ask you about what your life out here is like.”

“I am told by my friends who know humans well that your lives are like a frozen lake. You live in the surface water, which freezes and conceals everything beneath. Most beings live like this.”

“What about the deeper water?”

Polo chirred. “The deeper water is liquid even when the surface freezes. Currents move and other things live. Can the surface water reach the fish?”

“It’s frozen,” said Marco, trying to push aside worries he’d gotten in over his head. “So, er… probably not? It stays where it is?”

“The fish are there. The surface ice cannot touch them unless the fish come there.”

“And you’re the fish.”

“I move to the depths, I come to the ice. The ice is recognized. The ice breaks and it is recognized. Things move on top of the ice and it is recognized.”

Marco shivered. The cold felt very close to the bone now. “Can we go there?”

Polo was silent, but looked back and forth at the formless dark that seemed to well up between the trees. Marco slapped his hands against his thighs to get the blood flowing.

“A little,” his companion finally said, at the same time as long fingers reached to take hold of Marco’s arm.

It didn’t feel like they’d moved, and yet suddenly the world seemed full of motion; vertigo swept over Marco in a wave and he stumbled in place. Polo’s grip held him upright.

The darkness was welling, it was true, welling and also simmering; Marco had an idea that where he’d suddenly arrived, darkness was made of particles just like like was, and he was tracking the random motion of each one. They whorled around each other in busy eddies like a flood of ants, and each particle struggled to touch his eye so it could show itself.

Darkness was not the only spectacle. The trees did not move, but the lacework of branches seemed to churn. A density of pattern that tricked and trapped the eye, cajoling it further and further on, could be seen, and Marco found himself wanting to go there and study it - there was no sense that a consciousness looked back at him, but a high concentration of energy was there, and all that energy maintained a certain level of complexity, and from deep within, or above, or far behind what his eyes could see, he felt life like lamp-warmth pulsing and waiting.

He and Polo were in motion now and Marco tripped and stumbled over his own feet as he tried to keep up. Polo, working like a rescue dog, hauled him onward, not rough but inexorable.

Marco snuck a glance at Polo and closed his eyes again but the vision of complexity swam in his brain, denser, more intricate, worse, and more beautiful than anything else he’d looked at here; like a late stage Lous Wain, a pattern that invited study, a book that made you hurry to the very last page, the last potato chip in the bag. Every color of the rainbow and some not from the rainbow at all. The eyes had still been there, and like the hole at a bottom of a funnel they demanded attention, more attention and further thought, like leaning over a guard rail until you were just a little too far to pull back and then the canyon floor was rushing up for a slap -

His shins were barked on his porch. Marco stumbled and fell hands down, gasping, dizzy like he’d come off ten thousand blind folded spins before he could pin the tail on the donkey.

“What’s a soul?” he asked his splayed hands, unable to look up or make his body cooperate just yet.

Silence answered him. When Marco managed to look around, two sets of tracks led up to his house and he was alone.

---

Marco hadn’t thought to ask what he looked like in the sight.

He went to work. His students wanted to tell him about their weekends, about family happenings. He was an important adult in their lives and had a duty to them.

No tracks appeared around his house. Polo was leaving him alone.

The class rolled through their last little projects before the end of the semester. The last day was all celebration and fun, the students troupe from room to room doing projects, playing and relaxing. Marco nabbed a coveted movie slot and showed hour after hour of A Muppet Christmas. Winter vacation finally arrived and he had two weeks with almost nothing to do.

---

It snowed two days after break started and then again on the third day. Marco kept a watch for tracks, and saw nothing but the prosaic marks of birds, deer, and fox. Solstice came on the forth night and dusk, then dark, closed in early in an unyielding grip.

Marco felt uneasy and exhilarated. His blood seemed to have carbonated and he couldn’t sit still. He looked out his front door, up and down his neighborhood; snowmen at the end of driveways, rainbow lights sparkling from most windows, a big berm of snow pushed up at the end of the street. He went and looked out his back door. Furred, matte darkness. The woods. Then, as if Polo had been waiting, the eyes with the color gradient of a flame.

He came closer, halfway from to the house from the woods. When Marco gestured him to continue, he came the rest of the way. A basket was hooked each his arm, and he tilted one towards Marco as he approached; more mushrooms, bright berries, somehow five perfect crab apples, untouched by winter. Three bright fish gleaming like knives in the low light. Marco slid open the door.

“Are you ready to give me your soul?” Polo asked him, as Marco took the basket, backing into his kitchen. Polo followed him into his house. That smell filled the woods again: musky, loamy, densely interesting.

“What does that mean?” Marco asked, hooking his fingers under a gill cover and pulling a fish free. Polo set the other basket on Marco’s kitchen table.

“You saw the soul, in the woods on that night.”

“That’s what it was…” He believed it. “What does it mean to give your soul away?”

“Promise, entanglement, commitment, fealty,” Polo began, “First rights of asking, first call of duty, first earth in the grave, first bite at the air burial.”

“Weren’t you just shouting at random?” Marco said, finding it in him to be playful and chiding. “Hoping someone would call your name back?”

Polo shuffled his appendages on the carpet. “So few interesting humans in the woods… hunters pay their respects but they’re predictable… I hoped for someone more interesting…”
Marco shuffled through his cupboards, fish hanging from one hand, before he found a container that would do all right. “You need some friends?”

Worship me,” said Polo, surging up on him all at once, a dense presence, fur thick as new-growth spruce needles.

It almost made him step away. Marco made himself stay calm. He laid the first fish in the container and the other two, alternating nose and tail, wiped slime from his hand with a paper towel while Polo hovered.

“Show me the other basket.” Marco turned around and Polo was there, right there, the edge of the forest drawn in the house, his antlers inches away from puncturing the ceiling. Marco stood still, put effort into it, didn’t scare or scramble.

Polo ceded him a step.

Marco went to the table.

The second basket was beautiful, actually, woven from pale gold, blue, and black grasses, with repeating geometric patterns in a band around the middle of it. Polo made a long, low, extended rattling noise, more like a complaining motor than anything, and reached in and first pulled out a deer hide. It didn’t smell of blood or of anything but leather, and Marco reached out and took it, stroked the short, sleek fur, wondered what he’d possibly do with it - throw it over the bottom of the bed, as a footwarmer for the cold nights? “It’s beautiful,” he said, for lack of anything else, and because it was true: the mink brown of the back and sides, the white underbelly split in half to make an incomplete border.

Polo took out another thing. It was an egg? No, it was a white stone, Marco discovered, when he reached for it and Polo handed it over. Smooth and cool to his touch, a lake-worn stone. Another stone, speckled like an egg, in grey, black, and white, with a hole worn straight through it; Marco raised it to his eye just for fun and then barely saved himself from dropping it. Through the hole in the stone souls blazed in sight and he’d seen Polo’s fur/fronds/feathers dripping with the colors of midnight, iridescent and dark.

An actual egg, small enough to balance on his pinkie fingernail. Whatever possible hatchling must have been tiny, a humminbird. And then a gradation of eggs: a robin’s egg, so smooth and bright a blue it nearly looked fake. “Mallard,” Polo said, “Great horned owl, heron, eagle.” Eggs upon eggs, lighter than they should have been, with puncture holes at the ends Marco found when he inspected, where the yolk and white had been blown out.

He probably could not actually legally own the eggs, but it seemed like a bad time to bring it up. Polo had settled down and was now watching him closely.

A series of skulls in the bottom of the basket. “Mouse,” Polo told him, “Rabbit, fox, groundhog, crow - “

And there were more. Some of these were probably legal. Marco thought of bringing out the bones as educational aides. His students would be enchanted, some of them a little repelled, either way the lesson would stand out. These were definitely, definitely, strange gifts, but he had to admire… what? The scope of them. The work done to prepare them and transport them. How they were actually beautiful.

Marco had a sudden flashback to his daily wows. The bowerbird, who built a strange little chamber of twigs framing a round hole, that he could strut onto like a stage, and in front of the portal an array only of things that were blue. All shades of blue, to enchant his partner nearer. The robin’s egg would fit right in.

Actually, Polo had probably put in a lot of effort. Marco found himself fidgeting his hands together. He wanted to get up and make them tea but it seemed like it was time to, maybe, grab the beast by the horns.

“Commitment,” Marco said. It was, of all the stuff Polo had listed out, a word that humans commonly used too. “What does it mean when someone gives their soul to you?

“I have first rights,” Polo said immediately. “And first commitments. You have first commitments. And also first rights.”

“If I make first commitments to you, will my life have to change?”

Polo looked at him. He was a hard creature to read, but puzzlement seemed to seep into the air. “I enjoy what you have been doing.”

It seemed like a big risk. Marco was not what he’d call a big risk-taker. He’d gone into a field that appealed to him partly because it was steady, and he knew he was good at it. There were surprises, but in the framework of a routine.

This was probably the biggest surprise he would ever want in his life. A commitment would almost certainly open the door to more of them.

He felt himself leaning towards it. He felt himself wanting it.

“Are you a demon?” he finally asked. The question was overdue.

“I am of the woods.”

“What does that mean?

“I am of the woods, I am the woods. I am the lakes and streams in this territory. I attend migrations and the turning of the seasons. When the first cotyledon of spring rears its head, I know it. When the lightning-strike ends the tenure of the oldest tree in the woods, I know it.”

Marco shivered. The room was freezing cold. When he looked into Polo’s eyes, he believed those words. The strangeness of it all entranced him, the same way he used to puzzle over the rainbows thrown on the floor, appearing when sun shone through the crystals his mother had hung in the sun-facing windows.

More surprises than he’d ever expected his life to hold from now on. He wasn’t usually the type to be reckless, but he wanted to see more, study more deeply.

He looked at the being in his house, and for the first time spoke the pivotal name.