by Togi Kayako (土宜草子)
A dozen and one things drew Thimble’s eyes as they teetered on the tips of their bare toes at the very edge of the dirt path. Their father Hearthside had said to stay on the path and make sure they didn’t go so far into the woods that they couldn’t see a roof in the village. Thimble could still see one tattered yellow corner of the wind-flag on top of Great Aunt Warbler’s roof, which was mostly the same as being able to see the roof itself. The problem was that not-on-the-path had a lot of very interesting things in it.
Thimble wavered with indecision — a problem in most areas of their life. As they got older and still hadn’t settled on a name, Father had taken to holding out a bag filled with odds and ends every morning. Whatever they drew was their name for the day; today it had been a thimble. Nothing stuck, but Father liked the funny little ceremony and their mother Knifepoint said it was good practice for when Thimble decided on their name.
Something small and brown with white speckles darted from a bush and into the shelter of a hollow log. Thimble tried to blow a tuft of their shaggy brown hair out of their face and look for the creature without moving. They could hear it inside the wood, scratching or chewing away at something, but it clearly knew how to hide itself well. When Thimble strained forward a little further to try to see, they lost their balance. The handful of leaves they grabbed did nothing to stop their fall and they landed hard on their hands and knees.
The mystery creature skittered well away at the sound and Thimble plunked down on their backside with a huff. Their palms stung and their left knee hurt a lot more than the right. They wiggled their toes like Mother had taught them to do, then stretched the leg out and tugged up their long shift. The shift was torn through at the hem, which meant mending lessons again as soon as Father noticed. The injury itself was tiny, only a faint smear of blood across their knee, but the skin around it was indented like when they slept too long on a wrinkled blanket.
The lines formed a familiar pattern, like the fancy ones people stitched or drew on offering baskets or festival clothes or graves. They looked to the place where they’d landed and spotted a hint of the same pattern raised up in a flat stretch of earth. After some enthusiastic digging, they finally got one small, grimy finger wedged under the object and wiggled it free.
Their shift got a bit worse for wear as they rubbed the dirt off, but it was worth the scolding they’d get later to have a shiny silver circle resting in their palm now. Small, intricate carved vines looped together and apart again every whichway. It wasn’t any plant they recognized and maybe wasn’t a real plant at all. Its leaves, thorns, fruit, and flowers were dotted all over, and each one was different from its neighbor.
The strange medallion became the second most interesting thing when they heard a very human-sounding yawn from the far side of a nearby tree. They remembered the other piece of advice they’d gotten that morning, after Father walked off to talk to a neighbor. Mother had smiled her wide, thin smile that meant she was sharing a secret and said, “Make sure you know where the path is and all will be well, even if you choose to walk away from it. If you wander too far and get lost, we’ll come find you and bring you home.”
Thimble glanced back once to fix the path in their mind, then ducked forward to poke their head around the tree. Another child was pushing themself up on one hand from where they had seemingly been asleep, half covered with leaves and cradled in a perfectly sized hollow in the tree roots. They looked around the same size as Thimble, but utterly unlike anyone Thimble had ever seen before. Their skin was dappled light and dark, like the path through the forest in places where the light broke through the leaves above. Two tiny nubs of antlers poked out of their dark, tousled hair and both their wide yawn and the sharp teeth in their mouth were like a cat’s.
Traced out in dark ink on their chest was the same pattern as the medallion. Thimble held it up to make sure they weren’t imagining it, and the child jolted upright. “You found me,” they said. Their voice was wrong for their body, deep as the creak of an ancient tree about to fall over. The medallion buzzed against Thimble’s hand with every word and they took a cautious step backward.
“Who are you?” Thimble asked. They had to be a who, not a what — they were speaking, and monsters didn’t speak.
“Not much of anyone at the moment,” the child said. “I think I was asleep for too long.” They glanced down at themself, frowning at their skinny arms, then flicked their vividly green eyes up to Thimble. “And who are you, boy who found me?”
Thimble flinched back from the unsettling glow of the child’s eyes. “I’m not a boy. Or a girl,” they added quickly. “You can call me Thimble for today. I… don’t know my real name yet.” It felt bad to admit, but a different bad than usual. Thimble’s face scrunched in toward the middle.
The child tipped their head to one side, still staring intently at Thimble. “That doesn’t suit you at all, does it? I owe you a favor for finding me — would you like me to pick a better name for you?”
Thimble shook their head hard and held out the medallion pinched between two fingers with their arm stretched as far as possible.
The child made no move to take it, even after Thimble leaned in to bring it closer to them. “I can see that offer offended you, but I’m not sure why,” the child said carefully. “Can you explain it to me?”
“Nobody picks someone else’s name,” Thimble said slowly. “Not ever. Do you not have parents?” It was the only way Thimble could imagine someone not knowing such a basic fact.
“Not in the conventional sense, no,” the child said. They weren’t frowning now and they didn’t look like they were going to cry, so Thimble guessed they didn’t mind too much. “That is, I have no father who sired me nor mother who bore me.”
Thimble’s arm was starting to hurt, so they let it drop back to their side with a huff. “Or the other way around?” Thimble asked. “My mother sired me and my father bore me.” The child looked confused, so Thimble kept talking. “Like I know I’ll be able to sire when I’m older, because of how I was born, but I don’t know if I’ll be a woman or a man.”
“I see,” the child said, very much as if they didn’t. “Thank you for the explanation. I don’t believe I can sire or bear, but I am quite sure I’m a man.” Their voice did sound low and rumbly like a lot of the men in the village, even though they were clearly too small to be a woman or a man.
Still, it would be rude to argue or keep saying they for someone who had said he was a man. Thimble took a moment to look at the child and practice thinking he and him and even man, strange as it felt. When the right words were fixed in their head, they pushed on to a more important question.
“You know you’re a man, but you don’t know your name?” Thimble asked. Maybe some people figured out things backwards, but they were starting to think it was more likely the boy had hit his head on something and gotten confused.
The boy shrugged and relaxed back against the tree trunk without even a flinch as his bare back touched the scratchy bark. “I’m a Keeper. We don’t really have names beyond the people or places we belong to, and I don’t have one of those at the moment.”
“But Keepers aren’t real,” Thimble said. “They’re a children’s story.” And even in the stories they were barely around, only there to help make crops stay healthy and animals grow big.
“You seem very sure of how everything works,” the boy said. He wasn’t laughing at Thimble, but they could hear the almost-laughter curling up the edges of his words. “Maybe you can think of it as my name, then — call me Keeper. That aside, I do owe you a favor. What’s something you would like?”
Thimble thought it over carefully and Keeper waited without any tapping his toes or clearing his throat. “Will you show me the place you like best in the forest?” They held up one hand before Keeper could answer and slowly added, “And bring me back to the path again afterwards, please.”
“I would be happy to do that for you,” Keeper said. “Take my hand. I promise you won’t get lost as long as you’re holding it.” He got to his feet and some of the fallen leaves covering him straightened out into a short skirt. Thimble had no idea how it was held together. Keeper held out one dappled hand with a smile that crinkled around his eyes.
Thimble took it and Keeper led them deeper into the woods. Everything was brown and green and little patches of yellow sunlight, all the scenery kind of blurring together as Keeper broke into a run. Thimble’s feet didn’t catch on any rocks or branches even though they weren’t looking. The two of them ran so fast that the wind pushed Thimble’s hair back and whisked away their happy laughter.
Keeper slowed to a walk and lifted a thick, drooping branch up out of the way like a door curtain. On the other side was a mossy clearing with a round, clear pond in the exact center. Thimble stepped under the branch and wriggled their bare toes against the soft, ruffly texture of the moss. The wind moved the branches overhead and the sunlight coming through them made the water sparkle.
“It’s so pretty,” Thimble whispered. They glanced back at Keeper, but he wasn’t smiling, just staring at the pond like he was trying to tell how deep it went with his eyes alone. “Is something… wrong with the pond?” Keeper looked over at them and for one moment, something in their eyes made Thimble believe that they were a grown man after all.
“No, I was only lost in thought for a moment.” Keeper waved their free hand like a drifting leaf and nodded toward the water. “It’s very nice actually, if you want to swim?”
Thimble started squirming out of their shift, only to get stuck when they couldn’t take it off and hang on to Keeper’s hand. They looked at him, then their joined hands, then back, but couldn’t think of the right words. Keeper did laugh at them a little, but at least he was smiling again. “You can let go of me here, as long as you don’t go off into the forest alone.”
That was all the invitation Thimble needed to drop Keeper’s hand and toss their shift to the side. They took a deep breath and waded into the cool water in a few big, splashy steps. When they got up to their shoulders, they ducked underwater and came up with a laugh that sent a spray of droplets up into the sunbeams. “Come in, it’s so good!” they called to Keeper.
He untied the leaf skirt and let it fall, but then took a step back. Thimble had a split second to shield their eyes before Keeper dashed forward and leapt into the water. The spray caught went up their nose anyway and they sputtered indignantly. As soon as Keeper surfaced, Thimble batted a wave of water at them and from there it turned into an all-out splash fight.
Later, they stretched out side by side on the moss to dry. Thimble reached over and took Keeper’s hand again before closing their eyes against the late afternoon sun. “I said you didn’t have to do that here,” Keeper reminded them. With their eyes closed, Thimble could imagine Keeper as someone big enough for his voice. It was fun to guess what he might look like as a grownup.
“I like knowing you’re here,” Thimble said. “Thank you for showing me your pond. This was really fun.” They yawned hard and then stopped so abruptly that their teeth clacked together.
“You’re very welcome. You can sleep if you wish. I’ll make sure you get home before it gets dark.” Keeper twined their fingers together and Thimble’s breath rushed out in a sigh that made their whole body go relaxed. “Will you come back and see me again soon?”
“Promise,” Thimble mumbled. More words were impossible, but Thimble gave Keeper’s hand a squeeze before they fell asleep.
Thimble woke up on a different patch of moss, curled up against a tree right next to the path. Their shift was on, and the strange medallion was in the hand Keeper had been holding earlier. They ran their thumb over the nice, nubbly texture of the vines a few times before tucking it away in their pouch.
Great Aunt Warbler’s flag was in sight again, so they got up and headed home. Their steps dragged a little. They felt strange, a little like they had something stuck in their teeth they couldn’t get out and a little like they were carrying a too-full water bucket. The feeling didn’t let go even as they reached their house and pushed aside the beautiful yellow curtain Father had embroidered flowers all over.
He was sitting by the hearth, stirring a clay pot of something delicious-smelling with his wooden spoon that looked small compared to his big, soft arms. “Baby, baby, beloved child, who will you become?” The lullaby he was idly singing was the same one he sang to them when he tucked them into bed every night. He looked up with a smile and said, “Hello, my little Thimble! Did you have a nice time in the woods today?”
Normally, Father’s greeting made them feel like they were tucked up in a warm blanket. Today it didn’t. “That’s not my name,” they said, slow like inching across a too-dark room.
Father’s eyebrows went up and he let the spoon rest against the side of the pot. “Oh? Well, excuse me.” He got to his feet and came over to crouch next to them with a bright smile. “Would you introduce yourself to me, little stranger?”
“My name is Finder,” they said. Finally they felt what other people had described, the way the truth of their name settled deep in their stomach like a big meal. Remembering their manners, Finder added, “It’s very nice to meet you.”
“It’s wonderful to finally get to meet you, Finder,” Father said. His brown eyes looked too shiny, like he was going to cry, but his mouth was smiling. He pulled Finder into a very tight hug that they had to squirm free from in seconds. “Come on, let’s go find your mother and tell her the good news, and then I think I’ll need to go borrow a few things from our neighbors for dinner.”
Finder had joined in when other children in the village were introduced. All the aunts and uncles of the village would fuss over them until long after the sun set, so they knew dinner was going to be very, very late. When Father left to find Mother, they ate a quick handful of dried fruit and meat from their pouch and washed it down with enough water that their stomach sloshed. It felt bad as Finder’s parents walked them around to introduce themself, but it helped distract from the way everyone kept touching them and saying the exact same things over and over.
Great Aunt Warbler’s house was the last place they stopped, and she gave Finder an old-fashioned bow with one wrinkled, bony hand over her heart. “It is an honor to meet you, Finder,” she said. “Now unless a big storm is about to roll in, I do believe that was your stomach rumbling. Hearthside, Knifepoint, you’d best take your poor child home and let them eat before they fall over.”
“You didn’t let them eat first?” Mother asked. Father looked up at her with the big doe eyes that made Mother smile even as she let out a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry, Finder. Your father gets too excited sometimes. Let’s go home and eat.”
Finder happily trailed after their parents as Mother teased Father further, stopping only to wave politely at Great Aunt Warbler before she went back inside her house. With any luck, tomorrow would be quieter and they could go back into the woods. The thought of introducing themself properly to Keeper made their steps dancing-light as they crossed the village again and went home.
It was three endless days before Finder had a chance to go back to the forest, and even then Father made them promise to be home well before sunset. Apparently some aunts and uncles somewhere in their extended family were coming for dinner, so Father needed extra help getting everything ready. Finder scuffed their feet through the dusty center of the path as they went, already dreading more people to fuss over them.
Several dragging steps later, they realized they had no idea where to find Keeper or even the pond he had shown them, and they stumbled to a halt in the middle of the path. Their hand dropped to the pouch at their waist and they pulled out the medallion. It glinted in the sunlight as Finder turned it over and over again, but any secret power it had didn’t appear.
“Hello?” Finder called out. “Keeper?” They glanced back and forth to the forest on either side of them, but there was no sign of the strange boy. Finder slumped forward with a huff and turned around to go home.
Keeper stepped out from behind a tree as quiet as the deer Mother thought he was. “I had almost thought you weren’t going to come back,” he said. Finder shivered a little at his voice, which was still too big for his body.
“I found my name and Mother and Father made me stay home so I could introduce myself to everyone,” Finder explained. They stuck out their hand and added, “I’m Finder. Nice to meet you.”
Keeper took their hand and shook it, though his thick eyebrows started pulling together. “But we’ve already met,” Keeper said. “You had to introduce yourself to the people of your village? Surely they must have known you already.”
Finder didn’t think he was making a joke, but it was such a silly thing to say they wanted to laugh anyway. “They knew who I was, but we couldn’t meet properly until I learned who I am. Once I grow up and learn something useful to do, I’ll take a new name and then we’ll meet again. Some people take another name once they get old, like Great Aunt Warbler. I met her when I was a baby, but I don’t remember.”
After a long moment of what looked like intense thought, Keeper said, “That sounds exhausting.” Finder nodded hard and both of them broke into giggles. “Want to play rabbits?”
Finder liked rabbits. They were soft and quiet and even the pushiest ones only bumped their tiny noses against Finder to get attention. “How do you play?” they asked.
“I’ll run away and you chase me. If you manage to tap me with your hand, then you run and I’ll try to catch you.” Keeper spread their arms to encompass the path and the woods. “It’s safe to go anywhere you want, and I promise I’ll bring you back here once we get tired.”
“Only one tap on the arm? Nowhere else?” Finder asked. Keeper’s smile drooped a little and Finder wanted to swallow the question right back down. “Is that wrong? I’m sorry.”
“You don’t need to apologize,” Keeper said and he sounded very sure. “You can tap me anywhere you want. I can only touch you on the arm, or not at all if you’d prefer that. What would be more fun for you?”
Finder perked up at the easy question. “No touching is more fun,” they said.
“Then you have my word that I won’t touch you while we play,” Keeper said. They sounded very serious and grown-up for a moment but then quickly went back to smiling. “Now catch me if you can!”
Keeper darted off into the bushes and Finder followed with a delighted yell. The two of them ran through the forest all afternoon and Keeper stayed true to his word, only saying, “Got you!” when he came within arm’s reach. Finder started to feel like they could take big, deep breaths again for the first time in days, even as they got too tired to run fast.
Late in the afternoon, Keeper led them back to the same pond as before and both of them stretched out on the soft moss. “Thank you for coming back and playing with me,” Keeper said. He had caught his breath first and was idly braiding some long strands of grass together. “Is there something you’d like, so I can return the favor?”
Finder’s stomach grumbled and they poked at it with a frown. “Berries,” they said. “Lots and lots of blackberries.” It was too early in spring for any to be ripe, so they sighed and added, “You can give them to me in the summer though.”
“How about a few now, to seal the bargain?” Keeper got up and walked off around one of the huge tree trunks. When he came back into view, he had three blackberries sitting on his palm.
Finder let him drop the berries into their palm and took a tiny, careful nibble of one. Instead of a sour bite of unripe blackberry, a perfect sweetness melted across their tongue. They ate the berries carefully, half of each one at a time, and didn’t even get any seeds stuck in their teeth.
“Will you come back and see me again?” Keeper asked, once they’d finished.
“As often as Mother and Father will let me,” Finder said. “Thank you for the berries and the game. This was fun.” Their arms and legs felt too heavy to move, but Keeper had settled back down next to them, so it was probably all right. Finder stretched out one arm and added, “I like you.”
Keeper held his hand out over Finder’s and waited until they nodded to let it rest on theirs. “I like you too,” Keeper said. His hand was just the right kind of heavy that helped Finder relax and enjoy the sun and breeze without getting sleepy or impatient. They breathed slow and steady and just existed until the sun dipped low enough that they had to go home.
“—tall and thin, with antlers like this,” Finder said, gesturing with two fingers on top of their head. They wanted to start with the easy parts before they got to the part about him being a Keeper.
Mother nodded along knowingly, but then said, “And I’m guessing your new friend ran away into the trees when you got too close to him?”
“We were playing a game together,” Finder insisted. “The first time we met, he showed me a clearing with a deep pond and we swam together and then I fell asleep, but I woke up right next to the path so he must have brought me back.”
“That sounds like an extraordinary friend,” Mother said. “Could we meet him sometime?”
Finder frowned a little and slowly shook their head. “I don’t think he likes being around other people much, but maybe. I’ll ask him next time I see him.”
“No need to worry about that, as long as you’re having a good time and come home safe.” Mother tousled Finder’s hair, which made them wrinkle their nose at her. “You may not get to see your friend as often soon, though. Your father and I have been talking, and we thought it would be good for you to try working with Aunt Spindle or Uncle Claywheel now that you’re starting to grow up.”
Father tapped his spoon on the rim of the pot and nodded along as Mother spoke. “Like they say, it takes all our hands to shape the village. Besides, you should spend some time with other women and men to help you decide which one you are.”
It had only been two full moons since Finder found their name, and they already felt like they were back to failing. “Of course, I would be happy to learn from any of the aunts and uncles,” they said. Those were the only right words.
Mother laughed softly and pressed a kiss to the top of their head. “It won’t be so bad, little Finder. You’ll find work that your heart calls you to, and you’ll still have plenty of time to go chase deer in the forest.”
Finder nodded, taking a bowl when Father passed them one and swallowing all the wrong words down with the thick lamb stew. At least the stew sat easy in their stomach. They didn’t know how to explain things better so their parents would understand, and every time they couldn’t it got easier to simply say nothing at all. Under the table, they reached into their pouch and traced the endless loop of metal vines on the medallion.
When summer came, all anyone could talk about was how many blackberries there were everywhere. After Finder managed to eat enough to stain their fingers dark for weeks, they decided they probably shouldn’t tell anyone about Keeper. In a lot of the stories about Keepers, they could be offended and leave if people asked for too much or weren’t polite. Finder thanked him for the blackberries and shared the treats Father made with the fruit and hoped that was good enough.
The lump of cool mud at the edge of the pond slowly took shape under Finder’s hands, becoming a close cousin to a rabbit they had seen crossing the path earlier. “Uncle Claywheel says I’m good, but that I need to focus more on making useful things,” Finder said. They used the very tip of their smallest fingernail to shape the rabbit’s nose and smiled at the result. It was harder to do small details when their hands seemed to keep getting bigger every day, but they were willing to relearn as many times as it took.
“Beautiful things are important too,” Keeper said. He was sprawled out on the moss nearby, sunning himself dry. Every so often he would tip his head back and crack one too-green eye open to watch Finder work upside-down.
Finder slipped in a suggestion of whiskers around the nose, smoothed out the curve of one ear, and called it done. “I think he mostly means that I should practice making better pots. Mine are still too thick and uneven. Nobody wants a heavy water jug that will spill easier.”
“I would rather have that rabbit than a water jug anyway,” Keeper said. “Maybe you should take my opinion instead of this mysterious ‘everybody’ that seems to tell you what you can and can’t do all the time.” He said the words light as puff-seeds caught in the breeze, but both his eyes were open and locked on Finder’s face. “You’re not hurting anyone by being yourself.”
The idea squirmed uncomfortably over Finder’s back and they did a wiggling sort of shrug with both shoulders. “It’s important to learn useful work to do, and to listen to the aunts and uncles who know more than me.” Finder hunkered down next to their mud rabbit and hooked their hands around their knees, rocking gently back and forth. “Otherwise I won’t grow up to be a proper woman or man.”
They were already long past the point they should have decided that too. For all that Father said good things took time and Mother spoke of how welcome the late harvest fruits could be, Finder knew they were confused.
Keeper rolled over, smooth as an otter in a pond, and came to sit in front of Finder. He held out one hand, but let it drop without comment when Finder shook their head. Everything inside them was a useless tangle, like a child’s first try at weaving, but there was no aunt or uncle who could see where they’d gone wrong and pull the strands back into line.
“Which one do you think I am?” Finder asked. The shadows of the trees had stretched longer while they were lost in thought, but Keeper hadn’t moved from in front of them.
“Are you sure you want me to answer that?” Keeper asked. He was looking at Finder’s face with enough focus that they wondered if he could see the tangled thoughts inside. “Isn’t that as bad as offering up a name for you?”
It was, so Finder nodded and didn’t push him to answer. The truth was that they would let him offer a name now, if he had wanted to. It could be something like a lovers-name, a gift from one person to another that they didn’t have to accept if it didn’t fit. Keeper wasn’t their lover, of course, but Finder guessed this was part of what having a lover was like. Keeper was so safe that Finder didn’t have to worry if they were doing everything right around him.
Finder stretched out their hand and Keeper took it right away. “Do you have to pick one or the other?” Keeper asked. A little laugh popped out of Finder’s mouth like a startled frog from a puddle. Keeper was even stranger than they were, sometimes.
As Finder twined their fingers with Keeper’s and pressed their palms together, they turned the idea of which to choose over and over. Woman felt a little less bad than man, but neither one settled right like their name had. Neither one was worse than the thought of another moon of their parents sighing and wrinkling their eyebrows together every time they looked at Finder, though.
The next time Finder returned to the pond, their little mud rabbit had somehow been fired and posed inside a bit of hollowed-out log. They stroked a finger down the rabbit’s forehead and beamed at Keeper in wordless joy.
When they finally got the hang of water jugs, they made one with a ring of rabbits chasing each other all around it. Keeper laughed when they gave it to him, but it was placed safely in a mossy hollow by the pond every time Finder returned to visit.
Little by little, Finder’s creations started to decorate the clearing, alongside other gifts they brought. Their favorite was a bunch of clay leaves strung together that danged from a branch and chimed softly when the wind caught them.
Even Keeper himself wound up with a few things, like a hip-wrap in a rich green that matched their eyes. Finder had worried it wouldn’t fit, but it seemed to be the perfect size even as Keeper started to grow taller and taller.
The other thing he always wore was a clay pendant Finder had made from an imprint of the vine medallion. Both pieces were strung on matching green ribbons and hung right over their hearts. Finder never took theirs off, and fell asleep every night with their hand resting over the familiar curves of the metal vines.
Mother smiled bigger than Finder had ever seen when they said they were a woman. The words tasted sour on their tongue and made their stomach churn. All they could do was smile back and swallow and pretend that it was their naming day again, when everything felt right. The red dress Mother gave them was beautiful and soft against their skin, but every she and daughter felt like a bramble pricking deep enough to draw blood.
“Next thing you know, you’ll find your adult name and be a full-grown woman!” Father said, loud and bright as a rooster crowing. “Maybe we should talk to Aunt Homebark about starting work on a place of your own. You won’t want to live with your silly old parents once you’re courting someone. I know I certainly didn’t when your mother was chasing after me.”
Finder nodded along in the first real agreement they’d had all night. They loved their parents, but having a space of their own sounded like an incredible gift. No one would scold them for spending time in their own house, or at least less than spending the same amount of time in the woods. Maybe if they were very lucky, learning to care for their own home would also help them learn how to make being a woman fit comfortably.
Every time Finder went back to the forest, they thought about telling Keeper they were a woman, but the words never came out. Keeper taught them how tie up their skirt when they wore a dress, and how to braid their hair up into a loop around the top of their head once it got long. When Keeper spoke about them, he used either their name or words with no sting to them: adult and person and friend.
Keeper continued to ask what they needed before the two of them parted ways. Slowly, Finder learned to listen to what others in the village were worried about, big and small. There had been no serious injuries in seasons, the one new child born had been healthy, and all the harvests had been bountiful. No one got lost in the forest anymore. Finder discovered they didn’t even have to have their eyes open for their feet to take them safely to Keeper and back home again.
They went out to see him as often as they could manage.
With every passing moon, going to the woods felt more like squirming out of clothes that itched. Much like the clothes, Finder learned to tolerate wearing the word woman for as long as they could without any fidgeting or complaining. When it became too much, they went back to see Keeper. Their parents sighed and frowned when they saw Finder heading away from the village, but Finder had gotten very good at pretending they didn’t notice.
Most days, by the time Finder reached the little clearing they had already put it out of their mind. When it weighed heavier on them, they took Keeper’s hand and sat with him by the pond. They could splash their feet through the water in a steady rhythm and enjoy the warmth of Keeper’s fingers slotted perfectly together with their own. It didn’t fix anything, but it made Finder feel lighter anyway.
Eventually Finder picked their new name, one chosen to be as unremarkable and comfortable as possible, and told their parents. There was less fuss over a second name. While they still had to reintroduce themself to everyone, they could do it gradually over a few days, as the subject came up.
They didn’t tell Keeper.
The meals Father arranged with other young women and men in the area were the worst dinners in Finder’s life. Some of the guests spoke so much that Finder couldn’t manage to say a thing about themself, and others spoke so little that Finder hardly knew more about them by the time they left. Mother and Father took turns saying encouraging things after the guests left, though mostly they seemed to point out things Finder didn’t care about at all.
What difference did it make if someone had big or small hips, broad or narrow shoulders, light or dark hair? There were clearly some Mother and Father thought were better, but the few positive comments Finder managed to make didn’t seem to meet their standards. They had genuinely enjoyed the woman who didn’t slurp her soup too loudly, and the man who seemed at least a little fond of swimming even if he barely spoke about it before moving on.
“Can we stop having people over for a little while?” Finder asked after one long evening with a man whose voice had been shrill with nervousness and hurt Finder’s ears the whole time he spoke.
Mother patted their head and Finder fought off the urge to snap at her fingers like a cranky goat. “Why don’t you invite someone you like next time? A friend you met while you were working with Uncle Claywheel, or—”
“Bring your friend from the forest, maybe!” Father had taken the largest share of the wine with the meal and his laugh echoed through the whole room. “We could have them for dinner one way or another.”
“I’ll ask someone,” Finder said dutifully. The people they liked best in the village were mostly great-aunts and -uncles, none of whom would be appropriate for them to marry. They wondered if they could feign ignorance about what the dinners were for and get away with having at least one pleasant evening.
Halfway through the unfamiliar yellow fruit Keeper had brought them, Finder said, “I wish you could come to dinner instead of all these people I barely know.” They licked a line of tart-sweet juice off of one finger and glanced over at Keeper when he didn’t reply. “I know you can’t, it’s all right.”
“I could, actually,” Keeper said slowly, “but wouldn’t your parents expect us to get married, then? There’s only one part of being a husband I’d be any good at and I doubt you want me bringing that up at the dinner table.”
Finder ran over a mental list of married people things and frowned faintly. “But you do plenty. You bring me food I like and take me to places I enjoy. You listen even when I talk about something for much too long. You explain things clearly when I don’t understand them. You swim with me and braid my hair and hold my hand when I want you to. I’d be more than happy to marry you.”
“I’m very flattered, but those aren’t things only a husband can do,” Keeper said. Despite his disagreement, his voice had gone soft and he was smiling right at Finder. “I couldn’t bring a child into the world with you. I have no interest in calling you any endearments, or… I don’t know, telling you your eyes are prettier than the stars, or spending hours kissing you.”
“I don’t want any of that,” Finder said firmly. Pressing their mouth to someone else’s mouth sounded awful, and the names Mother and Father called each other only made Finder have to stifle laughter. As for the rest of what being married seemed to entail, they rarely gave it much thought, except— “Wait, you meant sex, didn’t you? That’s the thing you’re good at? Because I’m not sure if I’d want that either.”
Keeper tipped his head to one side and his thick hair flopped over one eye. “To each their own, I suppose. Do you not touch yourself, then?” he asked. The question was fine, but the hand gesture he did below his waist made Finder sputter.
“I do sometimes, if I can’t sleep or feeling like I need to is distracting me,” Finder said. “It feels nice, but I don’t understand why everyone makes such a big deal about it. Or why they want to do it with someone else.” The thought of putting part of their body in someone — let alone the other way around — made their face wrinkle up like they’d tasted something slightly bitter.
“It can feel even nicer,” Keeper said, with the one-shoulder shrug he sometimes did when he said something he thought Finder didn’t like. “There are some things you can’t easily do with only one person, and even for the things you can, someone else’s touch is different.”
Finder nodded along, because they could follow the logic even if they didn’t fully understand the conclusion. “Still, it seems like a lot of fuss for something that takes so little time.”
Keeper let out a little huff of amusement. “That makes sense if you don’t enjoy it, but I vastly prefer to take my time.”
Finder looked over at the long, lean sprawl of Keeper’s body where he was resting against a tree, thought for a moment or two, then asked, “Would you show me? If it’s something you like, I want to try to understand it better.”
The center of Keeper’s eyes got big all at once, like a cat that had spotted a bird nearby. “Are you sure? It’s only one thing I enjoy — you don’t have to try things that make you uncomfortable just because I like them.”
“It’s fine if you’re only touching yourself,” Finder said. “I know you won’t touch me when I don’t want you to and that’s the most important thing. If I don’t like watching, I’ll turn away.”
“You have my word that I will never touch you in a way you don’t want.” Keeper was shifting around, a little start and stop rock of his hips, and one of his hands was gripped tight around a curl of tree root. “Will it bother you if I like you watching me?”
Finder shook their head. “I like it when you watch me make things out of clay, or swim in the pond, or take a nap in the sunshine. I know it’s not exactly the same, but… it’s not that different, is it?”
“As long as you don’t mind, I don’t care how different it is or isn’t.” Keeper eased up onto his feet and Finder could see the way his cock had started to push out the fabric of the hip wrap Finder had brought him. “And if you want to touch me, you’re more than welcome to.”
The offer was a little surprising, but Finder considered it as they watched Keeper start to undress. His fingers seemed unusually clumsy as he picked at the knot holding the fabric together, and he sighed with relief as he got it loose and let the wrap drop to the moss.
Finder had seen him naked before and even partially aroused a few times as he dozed in the sun, but never when he was getting aroused on purpose. It was different, but not in a bad way. The two of them had learned a great deal about each other over the years, and this simply felt like adding another berry to the pile already in the basket.
Keeper padded over the edge of the pond and sat down beside Finder with his feet dangling in the water. His head tipped back and he dragged one hand across his narrow chest, stroking his fingertips around each nipple. With Keeper’s eyes closed, Finder could watch his face closer. He was both relaxed and tense; his chest arched up toward his hand, but his mouth was soft with a peaceful smile.
Finder reached out and traced the gentle curve of Keeper’s lower lip with one finger. He didn’t startle at the touch, but opened his eyes and raised one eyebrow. Finder shrugged and shifted closer. They wrapped one arm around Keeper’s waist and rested their chin lightly on his shoulder so they could see what he was seeing.
True to his word, Keeper didn’t hurry to touch his cock even as it rose up to press against his stomach. He rubbed his nipples more, licking his fingers wet so he could flick them back and forth even faster. Each one stood up hard as if it were cold as mid-winter despite the heat of the early autumn day. Keeper’s hips rocked up sometimes when he pinched one, like he was trying to rut against thin air.
Finder stroked their hand down Keeper’s side to his thigh and ruffled through the thick, dark hair on it. When they traced their thumb over Keeper’s jutting hipbone, he let out a low, soft groan of pleasure that Finder had never heard him make before.
It was only the first of all kinds of new sounds. Finder wasn’t sure they liked the slick sound of Keeper pushing his fingers into his mouth, but the little ah when he pulled them out was nice. He started to breathe harder, like when they had been running through the forest together or having a splash fight in the pond. His smile was much the same, a wild grin with his mouth open to show off his sharp teeth.
Little by little, Keeper’s hand bracing him up slid backward until he was stretched out with his head resting on Finder’s lap. He started stroking his now free hand along his bare thigh, not quite touching Finder’s fingers. Finder startled when they looked up and found that Keeper’s eyes were open again, but they smiled at him. “You’re really having fun,” they said, and found it wasn’t a question when the words came out.
Whether or not they could enjoy the same thing, their whole body was warm with the joy of watching Keeper’s pleasure while curled in close.
“Very much so,” Keeper said, all happy and breathless. “And what about you?”
“I’m happy you’re enjoying yourself, and I’m happy to be here with you,” Finder said. They caught Keeper’s hand on his thigh, curling their finger’s together with a smile. Keeper held their hand hard, like he had somehow lost his balance while laying down. His palm was hot and a little sweaty, but it didn’t feel much different than holding hands as they were drying out from a swim.
Finder felt like they were getting to see some kind of precious secret. So often, Keeper was the one who watched over them, and now they got to see him vulnerable and wanting but safe in their arms. Finder stroked Keeper’s hair and face, smiling as he leaned into every touch.
By the time Keeper first touched his cock, his whole body was taut as a drawn bow. His arm trembled hard enough to shake Finder’s too. In any other situation, Finder might have been worried at how tightly closed his eyes were and the way his mouth twisted almost like he was in pain.
As close as they were, Keeper’s pleasure was obvious. His whole body was warm even through the fabric of Finder’s dress, and they could smell the thick scent of his sweat. Keeper’s breath caught again and again, and small grunts and growls slipped past his clenched teeth.
Finder tugged his hand free and even as lost in himself as he was, Keeper let go instantly. With a sudden surge of boldness, Keeper curled their hand around the back of Finder’s where it rested on his thigh and moved their joined hands to wrap around his cock.
It was and wasn’t like touching themself. The motion was familiar, but the warmth of Keeper’s body and the way he got louder and louder was better than anything Finder had ever done by themself.
All at once, Keeper nudged Finder’s hand away. He stroked himself hard and fast, bucked his hips up in a few short jerks, and came all over his hand with a deep moan. Finder made a face at the mess, but Keeper seemed unbothered. He went limp against Finder’s legs with a long sigh and slowly caught his breath.
“I’m not sure how informative that was for you, but that was certainly nice,” Keeper said. He was laughing a little as he spoke, but it didn’t sound like he was laughing at anything in particular. “Do you feel like you understand it any better now?
“I think I do, but only a little,” Finder admitted. “I can see that you like it, but I still don’t think I’d enjoy it like you do.” They ran their hands through Keeper’s unruly hair and added, “I did like being here with you, though. I’d be happy to do that again.”
“And I would always welcome your company.” Keeper untangled their fingers and slouched gracelessly over to the pond to wash his other hand. “I suppose it’s like those awful, tart little berries I can’t stand. Everyone has their own tastes. There’s nothing wrong with that.” He flopped down next to Finder again and stretched his arms out wide with a smile.
Every word he said rang true, and yet Finder felt pulled in two directions: Keeper and their own truth on one arm, his family and the rest of the village on the other. It almost felt like everyone was there suddenly, watching the two of them and judging all their differences. Finder found it hard to imagine what it would be like to bring Keeper home with them. Would their parents judge him, too? Would he be as unhappy as they were sometimes?
Maybe none of it would be as bad, if the two of them could face it together.
Finder turned their head away from Keeper’s relaxed expression. If he was going to meet their parents, there was one awful, necessary step. “I picked my new name, a while ago,” they said. Their chest felt heavy and pressure was building up around their eyes, so they closed them. There would be the obvious question, having to say the name out loud, the loss of the last person who still called them Finder—
“You don’t sound happy about it,” Keeper said slowly. “Is it something you want me to call you?” All the tense stillness of Finder’s bad feelings went loose and wavy like the ripples from a rock thrown into a pool.
“No,” they said. “It’s not—” Their teeth clacked together and bit off the rest of the sentence, but Finder forced them back apart and shoved their truth out as fast as they could. “It’s not my real name. My name is Finder.”
Keeper gave their hand a careful squeeze. When Finder peeked over, he was watching them with the same warm, sleepy smile he’d had before. “It would be strange for me to call you something that’s not your name, I think.”
“Except in front of my parents,” Finder said. “You need to know the wrong one for that. If you do want to… come to dinner?”
Keeper nodded once, face firming into something more solemn. “I do,” he said. “I’ll say it as little as I can manage, and I’ll say Finder ten times for each one to make it up to you.”
Now it was Finder’s turn to grip Keeper’s hand too tight as a wave of bubbling warmth ran through their body. When that settled down, they gently tugged their hand free and sat up. They didn’t want to say their not-name, even now, so they took a small stick and spelled it out on a soft patch of bare earth.
Keeper looked it over, eyes flicking across the letters three times, and then poured handfuls of water on top until it blurred away into nothing but mud. When the two of them settled back on the moss to nap, Keeper took their hand and murmured a sleepy lullaby of, “Finder, Finder, beloved friend, you know who you are.“
Keeper didn’t quite look like himself when he sat down across the table from Finder’s mother and father. His hair was tied back into a neat tail and his antlers were nowhere to be seen. Strangest of all, he had on a pretty, dark green tunic that covered him completely from neck to wrists to knees. To Finder’s relief, his smile was the same, as was the shape and weight of his hand when Finder twined their fingers together under the table.
“This is my friend Deertrack,” Finder said. Their chest puffed up with a warm feeling as they added, “The one from the forest.”
Father stared blankly and then tossed back most of his cup of wine in one swig. Mother’s smile was a pinched flat in the middle, but she managed a polite, “It’s good to finally meet you, Deertrack. I take it you’ve known our daughter for quite some time?”
“A good while — it was Finder when we met,” Keeper said. He stroked his thumb back and forth on the side of Finder’s hand in a steady, soothing motion.
“She held onto that one for a long time.” Father’s laugh was unsteady, but some of the furrows around his eyes had started to relax. “I’m sure you know she’s always grown a bit out of season.”
Keeper turned his head to smile at Finder and gave them a quick wink. “The last fruits always linger sweetest on the lips,” he said, voice as thick and syrupy as honey. Finder had to duck their head and bite the inside of their cheek to keep from laughing, and hoped the gesture would look like bashfulness.
Mother put a hand over her heart, like she did when Father told her how beautiful she was. “Well said indeed, Deertrack. I’m happy to see that you appreciate her properly.”
The rest of the meal went well. Keeper complimented the food and the generosity of Finder’s parents. By the time everyone was picking at the crumbs of their berry sweet-rolls, Finder could tell Mother and Father approved. Best of all, they had barely had to say anything the whole time, only chiming in with agreements when Keeper spoke and doing their best to gaze lovingly at him.
Once Keeper had left, Father put both hands on his hips and huffed at Finder. “Why in the world did you not bring him over in the first place?” he asked. “No one we’ve had over is half as good a match for you.”
“He and I hadn’t really talked about it,” Finder said, voice small as the tiniest mouse. Some of their ease started to drain away and they wished they could have just left with Keeper. “And I was worried you might not like him.”
Mother was at their side in an instant, curling her big hands around Finder’s shoulders. “Sweetheart, dearest daughter, of course we like him. How could we not like someone who makes you so happy?”
“Exactly,” Father said. He stepped up to wrap an arm around Mother’s waist and pressed his hand to Finder’s arm. “He seems like a good man and he makes you happy. Bring him for dinner again in a few days, and we can start planning for your marriage.”
“Oh, my little girl is getting married,” Mother cooed. “We’ll have to go talk to the other women and see who has jewelry to give you. Maybe something in green, to match your husband’s lovely eyes.”
Finder was starting to feel like they couldn’t breathe and gently stepped back from their parents’ hands. “Will you tell me about when you got married?” they asked. They put on their best interested smile and turned their face toward Mother and Father in turn as each one spoke. It would only be one day, no matter how loud the celebration and how many people would be gathered to stare at them. They could survive one day.
Finder knew they were ruining their fancy dress by sitting right in the dirt, but it was a distant worry. Their skin was too tight and they couldn’t breathe enough and they could still feel everyone’s eyes on them. They rocked back and forth, rubbed their hands up and down their legs, but nothing helped.
“Hey now, easy.” Keeper’s voice could have been coming from the other side of the world with how far away it sounded. “I’m here, Finder. Tell me how I can help.”
His words went into Finder’s ears and they understood them, but the inside of their mouth was empty and dry. Finder tried to push up the sleeves of the dress, but they were so tight that Finder gave up and tugged at the rings on their fingers instead. A few came off, but they took some of the skin off their knuckles along the way.
“Stop,” Keeper said firmly. “Just breathe, as slow as you can. Watch me. I’ll get it all off of you, I promise.” He held out both his hands and Finder shoved one arm forward with a wordless whine.
Keeper uncurled their fingers one at a time and eased every ring free, finally taking off the carved wooden one on their largest finger that he had put there when they were married. Each ring, no matter how precious, was left where it fell. When Keeper had freed one hand, Finder could flutter their fingers again, drumming them against their knee in a safe, steady beat.
The pound of Finder’s heartbeat in their ears started to quiet down. The second hand was easier, only two small rings and a scratchy woven bracelet from Aunt Spindle. “Do you want the dress off?” Keeper asked. Finder nodded hard, but they couldn’t make themself stop rocking. “All right. I’ll fix it later, promise.”
Keeper held up one hand, his fingernails now long, sharp claws. Once Finder nodded again, they hooked one finger into the tight sleeve of the dress and ripped straight through the fabric. It made a good noise and Finder’s rocking slowed down so they could listen harder. Keeper worked a little at a time, opening the sleeve and then moving further up.
By the time he tore the itchy collar apart, Finder started to smile again. Keeper pulled the intact sleeve down Finder’s arm and they were bare to the waist other than the set of necklaces Mother and Father had given them. Finder stood and shoved the dress down over their hips, then ducked their head toward Keeper. He lifted the necklaces off and set them carefully on the dress.
“Go get in the pond, my little Finder-fish,” Keeper said. Finder was all too happy to slosh their way into the water and dunk themself under the surface. Keeper had braided up their hair that morning, so it didn’t stick to their face when they popped back up to breathe. They took a big breath and ducked underwater to let it out in a cloud of bubbles that tickled up over their face.
Everything was cool and safe and the water held their body gently, making it light. The next time Finder surfaced, Keeper had taken off his clothes and his antlers were back in place. Finder poked one hand out of the water, and Keeper waded in to take it with a smile. The two of them settled onto their backs with their hands linked and drifted lazily in the water.
The sun moved through the leaves overhead and, slowly, Finder returned to being themself.
“Let’s never get married again,” they said firmly. Keeper startled when they spoke and sputtered water everywhere as he broke into laughter.
It took Keeper a few long moments before they could wheeze out a quick, “I promise.” As the ripples from his laughter settled down, he added, “I’m sorry you had to marry me.”
“I’m not,” Finder said. They turned to look at him and found him already looking back with an expression they couldn’t read. “If I’d married someone else, it would have been just as awful and you wouldn’t have been here to make me feel better.”
Keeper hummed agreeably, but his eyes were turned up as if to stare at the sky beyond the trees. “Wouldn’t you be happier if you hadn’t had to get married, though?”
“I can’t know that,” Finder said, “but I don’t think so. My parents would be worried about me forever, and all the other things that bother me would still be there.”
“We could leave,” Keeper said, turning suddenly and wrapping both of his hands around Finder’s. “We could leave, if you wanted. We could live just the two of us in the forest, or travel until we found somewhere without so many things to trouble you.” His words spilled out like water from one of Finder’s first unsteady pots.
Finder paddled back until their toes reached the bottom of the pond and then set their free hand gently on top of Keeper’s. “There will always be troubles. I would miss people if we lived somewhere else.”
“But why would you miss them? Why do you want to stay somewhere that makes you unhappy?” Keeper asked. He looked small and lost in a way that made Finder want to fold him up in a soft blanket and feed him sweets.
“Because I’m not unhappy most of the time,” Finder said. They stepped back out of the water little by little, drawing Keeper along with them. “And it’s fine if I am sometimes. I like blackberries, but I know I’ll get scratched when pick them, even if I’m careful. I like swimming, but I can’t do it in the winter or I’ll freeze. I love my parents and everyone else in the village, even if they don’t understand me.”
As they left the water, a damp weight stuck to the top of one foot. It was the loose-fitting ankle bracelet Great Aunt Warbler had made them, and the green ribbons were so soft they had forgotten it was there at all. They could taste syrup of Father’s honey-cakes that lingered on their back teeth. Inside the house Aunt Homebark had built them, their mother’s favorite knife sat next to a wide, sturdy water jug Uncle Claywheel had decorated with a pattern of leaves. The rest of the village would leave them good food and little treats over the coming moon to celebrate their marriage, and every person would welcome Keeper as if he had grown up there.
A thousand little threads stitched them into the fabric of the village in ways that Finder didn’t think they could put into words. They squeezed Keeper’s hands and met his eyes with their biggest, brightest smile. “This is my home,” they said, and the truth of it settled comfortably over their whole body. “I want to stay.”
Keeper nodded a few times, until his shoulders slowly relaxed and he started to return Finder’s smile. “Then I’ll stay with here you, as long as you want me to.”