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Curious Cheetah

Natalia

I was sitting in a bar called the Golden Peacock. It wasn’t my regular haunt; it was one of the pubs frequented by the preppier of the professors and grad students, the ones with the fake British Isles accents who fancy a pint of Guinness or a bottle of St. Pauli Dark over a game of darts or draughts. Not my sort of people at all, but I’d been in the mood for a change, and something had drawn me here.
It was early in the week and late in the semester, which meant I had the place somewhat to myself. The regular clutch of grad students were off in their rooms writing papers, studying for exams, or prepping classes and exams for their own lecture sections. Here and there, a professor toiled over a pile of essays, a bowl of peanuts at one side and a beer mug in the other.
I was sitting at the bar, leaned over a draft of some American beer or other, staring at my blank drawing pad and trying to get inspired. Images danced through my head, but refused to be seized.
A couple at the end of the bar giggled over a joke or an anecdote, and I looked over at them, curiously. The man whispered into his paramour’s ear, and she laughed again, throwing her head back and laughing joyfully. Her hair rolled down, straight and raven-black, sweeping in a waterfall to her waist.
She caught my eye, and smiled self-consciously, lowering her lashes and then leaning over to whisper something to her beau. He chuckled and nodded, then turned to me and winked.
I blushed, then turned back to my beer. Her eyes had been a sparkling blue, deep and mischievous, and now they were trapped in my mind, pulling me in. I closed my eyes and swallowed, trying to focus on anything but her.
I opened my eyes and looked down at my drawing pad, noticing that I had already drawn her eyes, her nose, and some of her lips, in great detail. My beer mug was empty. I shook my head to clear it, confused because when I’d closed my eyes, the page had been blank and the mug had been full.
I glanced at my watch. 10:30. A moment ago, it had been just after nine.
A quick look down the bar confirmed that the couple was gone. A trio of drama students were histrionically reading through a script that, more likely than not, one of them had written as a final term project. They paid me no mind whatsoever.
I motioned to the bartender, who was polishing the beer taps. He looked at me.
“Can I get a refill?” I motioned to my mug.
“When you pay for the last two, sure.”
I looked at him, distractedly. I’d paid for the only one I’d had. I’d only had one, hadn’t I?
Shaking my head, I slipped a bill onto the bar, took up my pad and pencil, and wandered out into the night, the beer buzz hitting me hard as the chilly spring air swept around me.

I dreamed of her that night, all night, fitful dreams that came in bursts.
Some were sexual: She was naked, and caressing me, her warm fingers sliding over my skin, her kisses covering my face and chest, her body pressed against mine, tendrils of her soul wrapping around mine, choking me until I couldn’t breathe, until the passion was crushing my lungs.
Some were terrifying: She came to me as a snake, or as a scorpion, or as any number of other monsters and creatures, fangs dripping with poison, claws dripping with blood, tearing my flesh, rending me asunder.
Some were mystical: Radiant lights surrounding me, surrounding her, surrounding the dreamscape as I was raised upwards, floating peacefully between the realms of this world and the next.
As each ended, another would begin, shadows in smoke.

I went back to the Golden Peacock the next night, hoping to see her again, although I didn’t know why. She’d been with a man, and there was no reason to believe that she wouldn’t be with him again, if she was even there.
I felt strange and obsessed, and yet I was a moth to a bonfire, and I couldn’t resist myself, as illogical as it seemed.
Despite my concern, there she was again, sitting at the end of the bar with a different beau leaning into her, whispering whatnots and making her laugh that laugh that chimed like angels.
The bar was a little more crowded; it was Wednesday, rather than Tuesday, and the weekend was coming quickly. All the same, it was early in the evening yet, and I managed to find a stool at the bar, slipping onto it and setting out the half-finished picture of my siren.
I ordered a beer and picked up my pencil, intent on finishing my picture, darting a quick glance over at her. She caught my eye and smiled broadly, her eyes flashing impetuously as she whispered to the man next to her. He turned to me and smiled knowingly, winking.
I blinked, having stared longer than I had intended to, and looked down at my beer. I sighed, flicked at the eraser of my pencil, and closed my eyes for a moment to center. What was I doing? What was coming over me?
My mystery woman was obviously some bar specter, some vixen who seduced a different man each night that it suited her; willing men were easy pickings on a college campus, after all. Why did I feel so compelled to see her, to meet her, to talk to her?
Somebody bumped into me from behind, and I turned abruptly. “Sorry,” was the comment I got; it was some student, a bit into his cups and having trouble walking.
I looked back to my drawing, and only part of me was surprised that her face was finished now, and part of her body had been sketched in. She was smiling coyly, an impish fire in her eyes. My beer mug was empty. At the end of the bar, a group of poli sci students were arguing about the President’s current scandal.
I didn’t bother asking the bartender for more. I tossed a bill on the bar and slipped out into the night, my head pounding from too many beers.

That night, the dreams were clearer, coming in cohesive episodes rather than flashing images, but the stories were the same. In one, she was a seductress, taking me body and soul and filling me with an overwhelming passion that left me gasping for air; in another, she was a snake that slithered around my ankles, and then up my body, wrapping around my neck and choking me as she laughed; in another, I was at peace, floating high above the world, and she was there with me, helping me to fly.
One dream stood out as not fitting in with the others, since it didn’t seem to be about her.
In it, I came to an old cottage deep in the forest. Around it was a fence, and lining the top of the fence, on posts, were human skulls which leered at me from their empty sockets.
I went through the gate, and looked up into the night sky as a crow flapped noisily out of a nearby tree, cawing as it flew away deeper into the forest.
I looked at the cottage, and in the half-light it seemed as if the supports were made of human bones, and that the door was supported on the frame by human hands, decaying and fetid.
Outside of the cottage, there was an old woman leaning over a cauldron which was hanging on a metal frame above a fire. She stirred and mashed a thick mixture, and as I approached, she looked up at me and smiled. Her smile was nothing near comforting, a toothy smile that would have filled me with fear, had I any fear to feel.
“It’s a mash of your bones,” she said, answering the question I hadn’t asked.
“My bones?” I asked. “But I’m still alive.”
The old woman laughed softly and stirred her mash. “She has her eye on you,” she said, as if the statement was in response to mine.
“Who does?” I would have come closer to the woman, but the stench of whatever it was inside the cauldron was making me ill.
The old woman laughed louder. “You will come into my arms soon enough. You cannot keep your mother waiting and wanting. And then I shall have your bones for my mash.”
I squinted at her, confused. “I don’t understand. You speak in riddles.”
“We all speak in riddles, those of the folk.” She smiled broadly, her ancient skin rippling and sagging, her eyes burning into me, until I realized that the overwhelming sour stench was not her mash, but her. “It is our way.”
I came closer, despite myself, and looked into the cauldron. “I do not want this.”
“She has her eye on you,” she said, as if the matter had been settled.
She let out a sour shriek, and I covered my ears as leaves spun around me in a flurry; even though it was spring, the leaves were cracked and brown, and flew at me like tiny bats. In a panic, I swatted them away, but their fury increased, the wind shaking me back and forth.
And then the wind settled down, and the leaves fell to the ground. I turned to speak to the old lady, but she was gone, as were the cottage, the gate, the fence, and the cauldron.

That morning, I told myself I would avoid the Golden Peacock. There were other places to go, after all. There was something happening with this woman, or with my image of her, and I didn’t like it. I would have control over myself.
That evening, I went back to the Golden Peacock, committed to speaking to her.

I got there early, and she wasn’t there yet. I sat at the end of the bar, where she had been sitting, and took out my notepad, opening it to a blank page. I ordered a diet soda, instead of a beer, and paid in advance.
Tonight, I would be in control.
Before picking up my pencil, I closed my eyes to center.
A voice spoke softly in my ear: “It’s very lovely. An excellent likeness.”
I opened my eyes, startled, and turned. It was her, my siren, my goddess, inches away, and I grew drunk from her odor, from her heat, from the closeness of her body.
She smiled, her eyes dancing playfully. “I like your drawing. You’re a very good artist, Ivan.”
I squinted in confusion and looked down at my notepad. The drawing was complete now, and I was startled to see that I’d drawn her naked. It was a very simple, matter-of-fact drawing of her standing, naked, her pert breasts nicely shaped, her left leg forward and in front of the right in order to demurely hide her mound.
“Th- thank you,” I mumbled, looking first at the picture and then at her.
She laughed gently at my shyness and confusion. “You’ve been watching me, Ivan Petrovich.”
I frowned a little. “John. My name is John.”
She smiled softly. “Yes, you call yourself that. And your father is Peter.”
I nodded distractedly. “Yes... how did you know?” Thoughts of being stalked slipped into my brain, but I dismissed them. She didn’t seem like the type to stalk... she seemed too perfect, too angelic to do something like that.
She slid onto the barstool next to me. “You are Ivan Petrovich, and so that is what I shall call you.”
A flare of anger and frustration crept up before I could stifle it. “Look, who are you and how do you know about me?”
“My name is Natalia. I am less than what you think I am, and more than you can imagine.” She ordered a shot of vodka and leaned up to me.
Suspicions crept forward again, evil, dark suspicions that made my heart heavy and my mind cloudy, but one by one I shut them down, discarding them like so much dirty laundry until all that remained was a vision of perfection, this vision of perfection, this Natalia that smiled at me, whose eyes pulled me in and left me breathless, whose enthralling odors of flowers intoxicated my senses.
I leaned forward and kissed her neck softly, surprising myself by my forwardness.
She turned her head and blushed, pushing me away gently. “Not here, not yet, Ivan Petrovich. You shall be mine soon enough.”
I looked at her curiously. A shrinking part of me was resisting, but a growing part of me was longing to be one with her, inside of her, to let her inside of me.
“Shall we find our place within the realms?” she asked, purring softly in my ear.
I giggled, and shuddered, and nodded meekly, and felt as she took my hand and led me out of the back door of the pub, into the alleyway, out into the cold night.
My last opportunity to exert any power or self-control had passed, and I was left weak and vulnerable to her, my defenses stripped.

It was the first of May, a week before final exams started. I wasn’t a student myself, but I followed the calendar because, living in a college town, my schedule was dictated by college as much as everyone else. The school calendar said when the students would be studying, and when they would be in the bars and restaurants, and when they would be out of town for summer break or spring break or Christmas break.
The weather was warm, the first hints of the oncoming summer, which would prove to be one of the hotter ones in recent memory.
She took me to the Palisades, a strip of land next to the river which wound through the campus. The Palisades was a notorious couples’ spot, and sure enough, there were others rolling under blankets, or near the shrubbery, or even brazenly pleasuring each other out in the open under the full moonlight. Undergraduates, from the looks of it, primarily unconcerned with the upcoming final exams either because they knew they would pass or knew they would fail, and because there were more important things to life than exams.
I took a moment to survey the land, then turned back to Natalia, who had stretched out on the ground and was smiling up at me. “It’s time.”
“Here? Now?” I asked. Part of me was beginning to fight, remembering the intensity of the nightmares, the visions of her as a scorpion stinging my heart, as a snake poisoning my blood.
She smiled and sat up, wrapping her arms around my legs, and I felt them growing weak, despite myself... her touch was inebriating, and my head clouded from the heat of her body.
I sank to the ground, moving towards her as her arms moved up my body, around my torso, gliding gracefully, and then around my neck, pulling me close, my lips tingling with anticipation as they met hers, her tongue slithering between my teeth, her body pressing up against mine.
I lost track of her hands, her breasts, her legs, her lips, her scent, her heat, her touch, her fingers, her shoulders, her face, her eyes, deep deep pools that I fell into, swam into, drowned in, her soul wrapping around mine, embracing mine, my lungs, burning with passion and then fear and then an unbearable intensity that would have made me scream had I not been locked into this kiss, this incredibly unending kiss, my brain bursting from the overwhelming fire, my heart beating harder and harder and then exploding within my chest and in a brief moment I was all and I was nothing and I was no more and I was all that had ever been.
And then I blacked out.

I thought that what happened next was a dream. It wasn’t.
I was inside the cottage where the old woman had been. I knew this because the walls were covered with a fine mesh of muscles and blood, oozing and undulating as I looked at it.
I was in a warm, oddly comforting bed. It was my room. I knew this because of that certainty one has about such things in dreams, that places one has never before been to are somehow theirs, and they know the entire history of the place.
The door was held in place as the front door had been, with human hands for hinges and teeth clamped around the door frame for a lock.
The door opened, and the old woman came in, carrying a tray with a bowl of soup, a chunk of bread, some cheese, and steaming tea.
“You must rest, now. The transition is hard,” she said, setting the tray on the bed next to me.
“Transition?” I looked at her, confused.
“You are one of the folk now. She owns you.” The old woman smiled and nodded, like a proud mother admiring one of her daughter’s pets.
“What are you talking about?” I sat up and stared down at the soup.
“So presumptuous the new people are. They think that because they choose to ignore the folk, we cease to be.” She laughed softly, her teeth visibly wiggling in her jaw. “Eat now. Natalia will be calling for you soon, and you need your health.”
She moved my hair away from my forehead, like a loving mother, but her fingers were as cold as death and stank of rotting soil. I shrank away, and she clucked and nodded before leaving the room.

The transition was, as such things go, not as hard as Mother had thought it would be, and after a time, I came to understand that I was where I belonged.
Natalia treats me well. Sometimes I wish I were free again, but for the most part, I am happy.
I am one of her favorites. I think it because I am such a good artist; she likes to pose and have me draw pictures of her; most of them are erotic, because that is how I see her.
The others like my portraits. Two of the others I met already, in the Golden Peacock; they winked at me as they shared the secret with Natalia, that she had chosen me to join them.
I haven’t met all of the others. There are far too many for that, and I’m not sure that Natalia herself remembers all of them. Some of them live in forgotten corners of the house; others have snuck out into the forest to make hermitages; still others have lost hope entirely, and crawled into mother’s cauldron to be mashed. Not all of them are as pleased with their fates as I am.
Every year, she picks some of her favorites to go out and help her choose another. Next year, she has promised that I will be one that goes back to the other realm with her.
I can’t wait.