". . . But only so an hour.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay."
"Of course I'm comfortable, Hal." How could Jane Warden (formerly Jankowski) be anything else out in the fresh air with the late summer sun warm upon her face and her handsome husband at her side?
Aaron's woods could be intimidating. In all the years Jane had lived at the gatehouse with Hal and his two brothers, she had never really ventured very far into them alone. The areas near the drive were all right, just what you'd expect in a tame second-growth deciduous forest in northern Illinois -- dappled sunlight, green grass under foot, and the occasional deer taking shelter from encroaching suburbia. But the deeper in you went, the taller the trees got, the thicker the massive trunks became, crowding closer together until they resembled the virgin hardwood forest that had greeted the first white faces to set foot on the land. Jane always imagined she could hear singing and strange voices, as if the trees were talking to one another. Even though she knew that on the other side of Aaron's hundred acres the modern world began again with its wooded half-acre lots and beyond that the concrete ribbon of I-94 carrying its streams of traffic north to Gurnee and the tourist retreats in Northern Wisconsin, she always had the haunting feeling that one step too far and those woods might just go on forever.
So she felt happy to have Hal's arms to cling to. Especially now that she couldn't see.
"What I'd like to know is how you realized this has always been one of my fantasies."
Hal chuckled beside her. "Oh, I have my ways."
Jane had always suspected that her husband could read her mind, but with the pragmatism learned at the knees of her Polish-American parents, she had known better than to look a gift horse in the mouth. Such a talent had its uses.
"I can, you know," Hal said. "No reason for me not to admit it. I learned it on the job."
"From Aaron?" Jane kept her tone matter-of-fact. Nothing Hal did surprised her after all this time.
"No, from an earlier employer."
"Is that where you learned to lead people through the woods blind-folded?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. I did that once or twice. The trick back then wasn't reading their minds; it was keeping their thoughts out of my head. One of our 'guests' -- a dwarf -- kept thinking such filthy thoughts about me and my brothers that it was all I could do not to strangle him on the spot. I had to be content with letting him trip over a tree root once in awhile. Now you, on the other hand," he said, putting an arm around her, "I will keep from tripping. Step up, love, we're leaving the path."
Jane did as she was told. With Hal's strong arm around her and his hand under her left elbow, he could almost lift her as light as a feather. Still, she felt glad she'd worn her sensible shoes today. They continued on. From the changing warmth on her face and the alternating gloom and glow that seeped in under her blindfold, Jane could tell that they had entered a denser part of the woods. Twice, Hal helped her over fallen logs, and once he lifted her up in his arms to cross a stream, judging from the sound of his feet splashing through water.
At last they came out into the warmth again. Hal let go of her briefly. Jane heard the rustling of Hal's back pack and the flapping of cloth, and then she felt herself being lowered gently onto a blanket. She smiled. It reminded her of the early days of their marriage, when Hal would bring her out into the woods on a summer night and they would spend hours making love in the open air, with only a glimpse of the stars above through the tree canopy.
"Are you ready for your surprise?"
Jane shook her head. "Not yet. I just want to enjoy this for a while." She lay, savoring the feel of Hal's arm around her and the way her head fit so perfectly into the hollow of his shoulder. They were deep into the woods. The ever-present drone of traffic, that background hum one could never seem to escape even in the northern suburbs, had disappeared, to be replaced by an unearthly quiet.
Hal shifted beside her. "How about now?"
She nodded, and Hal undid her blindfold. At first Jane couldn't make sense of what she saw -- a splash of color that looked like bright yellow fireworks in midday. Then she gasped at the beauty. A massive tree stood above her, its leaves golden against the deep blue bowl of the sky, with strings of blossoms trailing down from the branches like little Chinese lanterns.
"Oh, Hal, it's beautiful! Is it …?"
"No, there are no Mellyrn left in this world," he told her. "This is called a golden rain tree. Aaron had the sapling planted here in the woods the year we were married, as a wedding present for us. I waited until it was at its peak to bring you here to see it."
"It's magnificent! Tell me, Hal, is this what the Golden Wood was like?" She had sometimes heard Hal and his brothers speaking of a long ago place called Lothlórien in hushed, nostalgic tones. An entire forest of golden trees such as this one must have been impressive indeed.
She felt him heave a deep sigh. "Not exactly."
Jane turned her head to give her husband a questioning look.
"How can I begin to describe it?" he began. "It was beautiful. The leaves never fell in Lórien. Rough weather never touched it, and time itself seemed to move more slowly. It came as close to the Undying Lands of Faerie as one could find in the living world."
"It sounds wonderful." Jane had spent her life working with people whose windows looked out across bare dirt yards and junk-strewn alleys to the rickety back porches of three-story tenements that fell apart before their eyes. A little beauty wouldn't come amiss.
"I thought so, at the time. But then I went West and saw Faerie for real, and I learned what perfection means. Nothing changes there. Nothing dies or grows old or decays. Every day, perfect, the same, one after the other until the end of time."
He paused and looked at her, a crease forming between his eyes -- the icy, blue-grey eyes with their slight upturn that she loved so much. "You don't see it much anymore these days now that the zoos try to provide a more natural habitat, but back in the old days the big cats would pace from one side of their cages to the other and back again. Leif had that look about him when I first saw him, and I felt the same way. Aman was beautiful, but it was dead. I was a guard, Jane, a warrior, and in a place like that I had no purpose."
Hal pulled her a little closer. "So when Leif returned home, I came with him. I have never regretted it. I know that the Lady Galadriel used to think Aaron and his people were ignorant and rustic, although she was far too well-bred to say it, but I'm proud to guard him, and to guard Leif . . . and now I guard you. I learned to see a wild beauty in Eryn Lasgalen that Lórien couldn't match. There's life and change there. It's the same here. A few months from now, those golden leaves and blossoms will have fallen. The branches will be bare and covered in snow, but then spring will come and they'll bloom again, new and different. It's the same with people."
"You mean like me? I don't think I'm ever going to blossom again, Hal."
"I never expected you, Jane. You've been the best surprise of all. I understand now why the Lady made her Ring of Power. I'd like to slow time just a bit. But that would take the life out of it."
As Hal spoke the words, a breeze shook the tree and sent a shower of golden petals down upon where the two of them lay. "I'm sure that somewhere, in the Blessed Realm where nothing changes, the Lady Galadriel is just as exquisite as the day she came of age, but I'd sooner have the wild world of Men and my time with you, however fleeting, than an eternity in paradise."
He brushed a strand of her hair, once yellow but now white, from her forehead and kissed her. "Happy fiftieth anniversary, my lovely Jane."
* * * * *