Aguane: Finding Home
A short story I wrote in college about a mystical creature's journey to freedom, new-found hope, and love. My teacher hated it. Enjoy!
by K.T. Anglehart
Natalia lifted her head above the smooth surface of the night-reflected water, letting her waist-length, glistening golden hair fall against her bare back. There was no better time to take advantage of the lucent streams hidden deep within the mountains. The waters were much more crowded during the day, but here, in the candescent moonlight, she was the only creature awake among the Western Alps.
She kissed the water with her heart-shaped lips and stared off into the darkness. All around her, the massive snowy mountains that were so distinguished against the black sky hugged one another, protecting the race that lived hidden like recluses between them.
She turned her long, slight body round and round in the water, the evergreens of the surrounding forests practically invisible in the night, though Natalia knew there were thousands in the mountainous region. She gazed upwards as she spun with leisure, relaxed and hypnotized by the dazzling stars.
“Non hai il dritto di essere qui, Natalia.”
Natalia whipped around to see her sinister, more beautiful sister. Valeria was glowering down at her, her arms crossed, a menacing smirk spread across her stunning, porcelain-like face.
Natalia despised it when Valeria spoke to her in Italian. The latter’s tone became haughtier and more domineering, in an I’m-the-oldest-so-I’m-the-authority-figure kind of way. Natalia retorted in English, “I do have the right to be here, Valeria. Go back, I will see you in the morning.” She then rolled her eyes, a rare turquoise in colour, and dived headfirst back into the water, her goat hooves kicking furiously so that she purposely sent gushes of water her sister’s way.
Valeria made a fierce growling sound, lifting the corner of her plump lips to expose her canines, and then a familiar fire in her pale gray eyes lit up. She snapped her arms on either side of her body, stiffening entirely, and jumped hooves-first into the stream. She sunk until her soles touched the bottom and she became nose-to-nose with her sister.
Natalia’s eyes widened at the sight of her infamous sneer and began to kick hard. But Valeria was too quick. She grabbed Natalia’s hair with her left hand and pulled, kicking the water furiously until they both reached the top. Valeria then swung her onto the ground beside the stream, and Natalia landed hard on her flat, exposed stomach, which scraped the rocks roughly beneath her. Her wavy, knotted hair dangled over her neck while her head was dipped in the icy waters.
Valeria pulled on Natalia’s hair again, lifting her head up, slowly and painfully. Still firmly gripping a handful of hair, she looked deep into the eyes of the creature she loathed the most, and uttered, “Disgraziata alla nostra razza.”
Natalia felt her head being smacked back into the water. After regaining consciousness several moments later, she forced herself up, knowing fully well that Valeria had already gone.
Valeria, her sister, who had called her a disgrace to their own race.
* * *
It wasn’t very difficult to avoid others in the Western Alps. There were plenty of places to disappear to, and that was just what Natalia focused her energy on most during the days that followed. She did not mind the solitude; on the contrary, she welcomed it. It allowed her to finish what she had started the night at the stream—total serenity and peace.
For days, she lingered hundreds of miles away from where the aguanes lived; the creatures inhabited the forests that existed nearer to the Italian Alps and neighbouring the Swiss Alps. Their home was the divider between the Eastern borders of France and Switzerland and the Western borders of Germany, Liechtenstein, and Slovenia. During these last few days, Natalia walked along the border of the Swiss side, peering out into the Mediterranean Sea and gazing upon the islands that surrounded the colossal, white mountains. Vienna was so close; she imagined living in a home with a family, being a part of a real town and a supportive community.
For days, she continued to wonder, forgetting about the incident with Valeria and losing herself in her thoughts and dreams…
Until a very ugly thought occurred to her. That evening was their annual festivities, when the aguanes gathered to rejoice in their independence from slavery. Tonight was ninety-five years of freedom. And the celebration was always led by Valeria. The sovereign. The leader. The everything.
But Natalia liked to believe that she was not under her sister’s rule. She always regarded her sister as an insignificant part of her life whom she was forced to treat as an obstacle now and again. Their last encounter had been one of the more civil ones—typically, blood would spill, and hair and garment fragments littered the scene, but Natalia had more than become accustomed to it for the past century or so.
“Ti ho trovato!”
Natalia let out a piercing squeal and spun around violently, her hand at the ready. She sighed in relief and smiled gratefully at who she was now facing. “Si, you found me.”
Milena seized her best friend’s hand and ran, dragging her towards the top of the closest mountain. She giggled and hooted loudly at the feel of the powdery snow beneath their heels.
They ran for hours towards the top of the mountain, without a word, just continuous laughter. The sky was soon darkening, and the stars were revealing themselves vulnerably above the peek, which they were now so close to.
Natalia made an abrupt halt before reaching a steep, icy section nearing the top. “Okay,” she panted, “let’s turn back.” Natalia tugged Milena’s outstretched hand in an attempt to drag her in the opposite direction.
Milena giggled girlishly again and shook her head. “No! Come on, we’ll climb.”
But Natalia planted her hooves firmly, which involved a great deal of effort; Milena, although perhaps the smallest and fragile-looking of the aguanes, was also the strongest. “Lena, we should get back in time for the festival, don’t you think?”
Milena sighed. “Always ruining my fun,” she said exasperatingly, and then letting go of Natalia’s warm hand, she crossed her arms like a child who was denied dessert and sat down on the glacial surface, stretching her legs out in front of her. She gave herself a strong push using her slender, albeit muscular arms, and Natalia followed suit. The two began to slide, passing patches of hard ice that they could barely feel against their solid flesh as they glided easily downwards until they reached the bottom, where the soft snow welcomed them and the tall evergreens marked the beginning of the forest.
Milena shot up from the ground and stalked off, zipping among the trees and trudging through the deep snow.
Natalia couldn’t help but roll her eyes at her friend’s juvenile behaviour. “You are not angry, are you?” she shouted ahead of her in the distance.
Her friend stopped and turned around, waiting impatiently for Natalia to catch up. When she did, she answered with a hint of irritation in her voice, “I just hate when you let your sister control you. Lo odio, Natalia. Why do you—?”
“You do not understand.”
“Then, per favore, explain it to me.”
Natalia continued to walk towards the mainland, where the aguanes had surely already begun celebrating.
Milena had no trouble keeping up. “Answer me. What does she have on you? Why do you just stand aside and—?”
Natalia rounded on her. “I do not just stand aside, Lena! You were not there a few nights ago. You do not know what she is like, even when I do stand up to her. Valeria is crazy—e pazza! She cannot be stopped.”
But Milena shook her head stubbornly. “No, bella.” Her voice became softer. “You do not stand your ground enough. This is why you disappeared for days? Hiding out in the forest, in between the mountains far from all of us? You think it does not give your sister the satisfaction of winning? Basta, Natalia. It is enough, no?"
Natalia had no retort. She knew Milena was right, but she was also missing large pieces of the puzzle. Though, she chose not to elaborate.
They trudged on, the snow becoming less and less deep as they neared the centre of the surrounding mountains—the mainland, which had become their residence exactly ninety-five years ago, when they arrived here together. When they had formed their own community.
In the distance, Natalia could begin to hear the sound of the three hundred or so females laughing and singing and playing their instruments made of raw materials found in nature: the deep, overpowering vibrations emanating from the horns of passing bighorn mountain sheep; the sound of antlers creating catchy beats on the trunks of dead trees; and the clattering of teeth from hunted mountain lions, creating a playful, rattling sound.
Natalia stopped dead when she heard the sound that overpowered all of the inimitable instruments. It was the unmistakable sound of her own sister’s voice—an echo that reverberated off every surface in the clearing, a resonance that defined the meaning of magic and wonder. Natalia was sure Valeria’s voice carried for miles, perhaps hundreds of miles. She thought of humans skiing or hiking far off somewhere and what they must imagine.
The song became louder as they drew nearer. Despite Natalia’s raw, unsettling feeling in her gut, what they stood facing now was a marvelous sight: The aguanes all wore the same blood-red cloths wrapped delicately around their similarly tall, lean bodies, the silk flowing past their hooves in a goddess-like manner, and the wind lifting the hem off the ground and whistling along with Valeria’s tune.
Milena nudged Natalia’s hand with hers, who took it and smiled, grateful now more than ever for the sister she never truly had.
“Natalia! Milena!” a cheerful voice shouted from behind them. “Que fai? What are you doing so far away from the festivities? You must come dance!” said Leila, whose bright, kind eyes lit up at the sight of them. Her flaming red hair bopped behind her as she took hold of each of their hands and led them, skipping, towards the group of aguanes twirling about. The tall, magnificently burning fire in the centre sent blue and red sparks shooting up towards the stars, the glow of the massive flames cascading over the creatures’ dance.
Natalia was among them now, her own emerald cloth and Milena’s golden one standing out against the lot of red ones. Still clutching Milena’s hand, she squeezed it tightly. “Lena, let us change. I—um…”
“You want to blend in, yes. I know.” Milena smiled, and the two escaped from the merry crowd and picked up a large piece of red material from the pile on the ground near the spot where some of the aguanes played their instruments. Everyone was wearing the festive clothing, and Natalia did not want another moment without looking the same as the others. All she needed was for Valeria to humiliate her in front of the rest of the community, right in the middle of their annual celebration.
Milena had already taken off her robe and slipped on the ceremonial one. She helped Natalia do the same, stepping around her to flatten out any wrinkles. She then stopped to face Natalia and locked eyes with her. Her expression sincere and helpless, she said with sadness in her voice, “Natalia. You are not happy, I know this. But for tonight, let us forget about our troubles. We are free creatures! We will celebrate the lives we have now, here in this beautiful place. Per favore. Will you try?” Milena’s big eyes glistened. Natalia could tell she was holding back tears. She was so hopeful.
“We are not free.” Natalia finally said.
Milena nodded. “I said will you try?”
Natalia hesitated. “Si.”
Milena smiled and wiped away the single tear that had fallen down one of her rosy cheeks. “Then let us drink some spirits!”
Natalia could not deny that she was glad she had a friend that was this pushy and assertive. Her true counterpart.
Throughout the night, they drank spirits made from wild, fermented fruits and danced around the fire, which was still very much alive, as though being fed by the crowd’s enthusiasm. They joined all the aguanes in dance and song, ate the delectable food that was caught fresh that morning, and engaged in small talk and gossip with the rest of the females.
Natalia admitted to Milena (after a considerable amount of spirits) that it had been a pleasant night after all, and perhaps it was not such a horrid idea to participate in community affairs more often.
As if on cue, Valeria tapped Natalia on her right shoulder. Natalia spun round, and the smile faded from her face. “Ciao, sorella.” Natalia flinched at the word “sister”. She replied politely, “Ciao, Valeria. I was just going to call it a night…”
Valeria gave her best, fake smile and waved her off. “But of course not! You must come sing with me. One last song to end the festivities!”
If Natalia could shrink, she would be the size of the tiny, broken tree branch trapped under her hoof. “Valeria,” she whispered, advancing more closely towards her sister. Her voice shook. “You kn-know that I ca-cannot—that I have—”
“Nonsense, sorella,” she said more loudly. And then she shouted, so that everyone was sure to hear her, “I am so glad to have you sing with me!”
Something in Milena snapped. She grabbed Valeria’s arm, sinking her nails deep into her perfect skin, and hissed, “Basta!”
But Valeria hissed louder, revealing all of her sharp teeth; her beautiful face had transformed into that of a monster. No one else seemed to have witnessed this last part, as they began cheering and jeering loudly, clapping excitedly for the two sisters to sing their song.
“Let go, Milena,” Natalia pleaded softly. Milena reluctantly let go, and Natalia marched up to the wooden podium, allowing her worst enemy to hold her hand. She felt like a circus animal among the crowd.
“My dear sister would like to end our successful celebrations with one last song.
Everyone, please welcome Natalia, whose voice puts mine to shame!” She laughed another fake laugh, and everyone joined in. Natalia looked down at the eager faces of the aguanes and began to shake uncontrollably from top to bottom—and it was a long way down. Saliva accumulated in her mouth, and she was unable to swallow it. She was rooted to the spot, her knees weakening with every second. She tried to move her lips, but they were completely dried up, refusing to give even the slightest twitch.
She hated her sister. She despised her with everything she had. Every bone in her body wanted to repel her, to be free from her forever. She managed to move her head, and her gaze fell on the hand still holding hers. Her entire body cringed.
And then several things happened at once: She freed her grip from Valeria and lowered her head, feeling the consumed spirits moving up from her stomach and begging to search for an escape. She threw up instantly, off the stage and all over the ground, where some aguanes stood watching. They screamed in disgust and scattered away, running as though burned by lava.
Natalia jumped off the stage and landed face-first on the ground. Weak from fear and shame, she lay there, her face covered in snow. But she didn’t care. She could hear Valeria’s laughter fading as the latter walked away, yet again, from her own sister. Milena and Leila ran to her rescue, encouraging her to get on her hooves. Still, Natalia moved not a muscle. She wanted everyone to disappear, to forget that she existed. That she was part of them.
Her head shot up. Milena tried to hoist her up, but Natalia slapped her hand away. “No.”
Milena ignored her and kept trying to take her hand to steady her, but Natalia slapped it away again. “I said no!” she bellowed, and everyone turned around to watch. “Leave me be,” she huffed angrily.
“Natalia—” Milena pleaded, choking through her tears.
“Don’t follow me this time. If you love me, you will leave me be.”
Milena nodded, tears still streaming down her round face. And with that, Natalia knew she would not try to find her.
Natalia broke into a run and didn’t look back. She ran far from it all. From the noise and the laughter, from the meaningless chatter. All meaningless, she thought.
She would head for the Western border. She knew that they would not follow her there, that even Valeria would not cross that line. They were banned to, under Valeria’s regulations. But right now, Natalia was not part of them. Not now.
It was daylight by the time she finally stopped running. Panting, she looked up at the bright rays of sunlight, making the snow sparkle like sugar. The morning air was fresh and cold. Natalia continued to stare up, taking the time to analyze the position of the sun. The sun was six degrees below the horizon. It was dawn.
She’d been running sans rest all through the night. She should have felt exhausted, but she was full of adrenaline.
She took in the new surroundings; the mountains were higher here. She could see Mont Blanc, the highest of the Alps, far off in the distance. She had never been this remote from the mainland. She had crossed the Swiss border and was now in utter solitude. For the first time in hours, Natalia drew a deep, slow breath, inhaling the crisp air and welcoming the foreign winds. She closed her eyes and listened to nothing.
And then like a cannon in a crossfire, she heard it instantaneously—a crack. She closed her eyes tighter and strained to hear where it came from, zeroing in on the emptiness around her. She could hear the snow being embraced and carried away by the quiet wind as clearly as if drums were banging in her ears.
And then another crack sounded, this time travelling ever so gradually, like the effect of a thin layer of ice breaking over a small pool…
The crack was followed by a sudden splash. Natalia’s eyes shot open and ran in the direction of the barely audible noise, not quite knowing what she was searching for. She had never run this swiftly before in her life. She staggered around the forest trees, which, Natalia thought in that moment, were sowed at very inconvenient spots…
“ARGH! P-PLEASE, HELP!” someone yelled and choked from underwater.
Natalia still could not see who had been yelling. She closed her eyes in an effort to locate the noise.
Natalia imagined someone trapped beneath large pieces of ice, freezing until their entire, helpless body was limp at the bottom of the frozen pool.
She darted further into the forest, hoping she was not too late. What if it were a child? Children were pure of heart and innocent of corruption. It was an aguane’s duty to save and help any child that crossed their path and lead them to safety. But there was a different law for grown human men. Suffice to say, they were not to be treated with as much…decency.
Finally, she stopped at the frozen pool on the ground near a large oak tree. Natalia dived without wavering to the bottom of the narrow pool, where a human floated unconscious. She locked her long arms around the human’s waist and kicked easily to the surface.
When she placed the body gently on the snowy ground, she looked at the victim for the first time.
Tiny icicles covered the ends of his ruffled, jet-black hair, and Natalia could not tell whether he was pale from being frozen solid or if his skin tone was that naturally pallid. The effect was beautiful, nonetheless. She hovered over him, fascinated, for it had been ninety-five years since she had gazed at a set of human eyes. She brushed the ice away from his head and touched the contours of his angular face, slowly tracing his cheek, jawline, and lips. She blew softly on his visage, the hot air from her breath putting colour back into his cheeks and forehead. His eyes flickered, and she was staring into a hue of deep green. He forced his eyes wider, as though he could not believe what he was seeing, and his pupils dilated. She could hear his breathing quicken and feel his heart racing, pounding louder and louder against her own chest.
Natalia was suddenly very aware of how this may look to him. She also knew that if she did not leave this instant, she would have no choice but to abide by the aguane law.
She sprang on her hooves and broke into a run, back through the forest from whence she came, and slowed when she knew she was out of sight. Spotting a wide fir, she slipped behind it and watched the man from a safe distance.
He lifted himself off the ground with difficulty, his long body shivering frantically. He turned in a full circle, clearly puzzled by the thing that had saved him from the pool. The frightening creature, Natalia thought sadly. She turned to head back in the opposite direction until the man shouted, “Hello? Are you still there?”
Without knowing it, he was headed to wear she stood, making his way around the cluster of firs. She walked stealthily in the opposite direction. The man’s pace picked up as he shouted desperately, “Please, hello?”
Natalia thought it wise to stay hidden between a pair of wide trees until the human eventually gave up. She watched as he neared her, examining every tree and snowbank around him, and then his eyes fell on the two firs in between which she stood, concealed by the large branches. She moved not a muscle. The man must have stared at the pair of trees for five whole minutes before he glanced down at the ground and noticed the only part of her body that resembled that of a goat.
Panicked, Natalia did the only thing she knew would scare him off for good. Slowly, she emerged from the trees and glared fiercely into the man’s eyes. And then cocking her head slightly to the side as she walked forward, she let out a loud, hungry hiss.
But the man did not so much as flinch. He simply stared back at her with utmost curiosity in his expression. “What are you?” he asked with longing. He was dumbfounded, Natalia could tell. What she could not figure out, though, was why he was not afraid.
“You need to stay away if you want to live,” she said to him in a whisper.
He continued to stare at her. Puzzled, he replied, “But you saved my life.”
Natalia exhaled loudly. “I should not have done that. I thought you were a child in danger. Go away, or I must kill you.”
Still, the man stood on the spot, unable to remove his gaze from her. “You won’t hurt me.”
Natalia thought of Valeria and the others and how they would have killed him instantaneously. Why had she saved him? Why was she hesitating now?
“Go. Now. If you don’t, the others will find you.”
“There are others?” he asked, astonished.
Natalia had already said too much. Aguanes were not to have any contact with adult humans and were ordered to kill any man that crossed their path. Natalia could see that he was stubborn—she knew she must flee the scene now and never return. She would run up to the mountain peak, where he would never be able to catch up.
In her escape attempt, she whirled on the spot, but he managed to grasp her arm before she could break off into a run.
He had a strong grip for a human, she thought. “You do not know what you are doing,” she warned.
“Please, just tell me what—who you are. I won’t tell a soul. I came alone. Why would you save me and then threaten to kill me?”
“I have told you, you could have been a child.”
He shook his head. “You must have known that I wasn’t a child when you saw me at the bottom of the water.”
“Lasciami,” she said angrily.
He frowned. “Sorry? I don’t speak—”
“Let me go.”
He continued to stare, never taking his eyes off hers. “You could release yourself from my grip on your own, I’m sure. Yet you won’t… Don’t run, please.” He looked at her hopefully. His face was kind, with a lure of innocence. Natalia was warned long ago, when they had escaped from imprisonment, that humans were likely to trap them for their own personal gain.
So that they could be treated as the slaves they once were.
But she could not detect a trace of arrogance or indecency on his face. She was weakened by his handsome appearance and mesmerized expression, even though she knew that humans were tremendously deceiving.
He unleashed his firm hold on her, cautiously. Although she knew she should run, Natalia couldn’t seem to tear herself away. He smiled slightly; she did not give him one in return. Instead, she asked bluntly, “What do you want?”
“I want to know what…” He struggled to find the words.
She closed her eyes momentarily and finished his thought aloud. “You want to know what I am.” It was not a question. He merely stared at her, still holding her gaze. Natalia spoke again. “I am an aguane.”
The man shook his head in confusion. “I’ve never heard of anything like that— like you. I mean, is it common?”
“No,” she said fiercely, and then turned away and stalked off. She had said too much to a human. She would be exiled, or killed if the others found out. Nonetheless, for a reason she could not explain, she slowed her down.
The man was patient. Without a word, he traced her hoovesteps behind her like a shadow until he could tell that she had regained her calm. Natalia stopped in her tracks and ran her delicate fingers through her long, silky hair. “I am sorry. You should not have met me.”
“You have to stop saying that. You saved me. I want to know your story. And if it means killing me afterwards, then so be it.”
Natalia laughed bitterly. “See? You do not know what you are saying! You are succumbing to my powers.” She sighed in frustration. “You do not want to know me. It is what we do, like the siren—we lure, and then we kill.” She uttered the last word as though it were poison she was forced to inject into her body.
He shook his head again, the last of the miniature icicles falling from his thick hair. “You’ve been trying to run away from me since I woke up and saw you. Your powers would have lured me more intensely and killed me instantly if that’s what you desired. But it’s not. Now…” he began, “I’m going to sit right here—” he sat on a small tree stump, “—and I want you to do the same. I want to know who you are.”
Natalia’s heart leaped in her chest as she heard the words escape his lips, still a touch blue from the cold. He was interested, truly interested in who she was. She felt human for an instant. Was this not what humans did? They got to know each other, did they not?
Do not be a fool, Natalia told herself. You are not human.
But then she lost herself again in his eyes, full of intensity and yearning and fascination all at once. And she sat beside him on the wet tree stump. “What more do you want to know?” she asked, her tone gentler now.
There was a glint in his eye as he replied, “Your name.”
She didn’t realize her skin could tingle until this moment. “Natalia. And what is yours?”
“Liam. You have a beautiful name, Natalia.”
Natalia’s cold blood rushed to her cheeks and flooded them with colour. “As is yours.”
“I want to know why you believed you had to kill me.”
“If I told you, then I really would have to kill you, Liam.”
He grinned. “I’ll take my chances.”
Natalia took a deep breath before she spoke her story aloud for the first time. “My kind and I grew up in this region over a hundred years ago. We lived with our families. The men in our lives were fauns. My father was one, of course.” Natalia closed her eyes again, remembering her ancient life. “We were discovered one night by…your kind. They were all men. They were violent and brutal. They trapped all of the women and us, the children, and they took us. They took us far away from here and kept us as slaves. We were locked away in cages, like animals. We were to…pleasure them any way they wanted.” Natalia’s eyes were swimming with tears, but she refused to let them escape.
Liam placed his cold hand on hers, and his eyes widened from shock at the feel of her skin. “Your hands—they’re so warm in this weather.”
She looked up at him. “We were born to adapt to these surroundings. I have never shivered from cold.”
He nodded in understanding. “What happened to the fauns? Your father…?”
“They were all killed. The humans found no use for them. In our prison, my sister, Valeria, was treated with the most brutality; she was the most beautiful, and many of the men had their way with her. She was the one who discovered a way to escape, and led us here. I told her it was suicide, that we would only be hunted down again. But she went forth with her plan, without my support.” She shook her head at herself. “And one by one, she murdered each of those horrible men. She has never forgiven me for trying to stop her. And now, she is the cruelest of all and does not care for the lives of others. She became the leader. Everyone wanted to follow her, to be like her. So, she made all the aguanes vow to kill any man that crosses their path but to always help children, who are not yet corrupted.”
Liam’s expression was filled with sadness. “I’m so sorry…for your past, and for putting you in such a position.”
The wind blew harder, making Natalia’s hair fly wildly across her head and face. Liam reached out and brushed a long strand behind her ear. His hand lingered, and he let it slide down her cheek, feeling the smoothness of her neck. Natalia felt something inside of her for the very first time. A kind of weakness she could not control. A feeling of vulnerability to a stranger that she was forbidden to be this close to, without tearing his limbs apart. She trembled at the thought.
Liam shivered. Natalia took his hands in hers and blew gently on them. He smiled in wonder. “Thank you for saving me. And for letting me know you. I wish you would stay here with me.”
“But why? I don’t understand.”
The sun moved over Liam’s face, and his eyes twinkled as he smiled again, staring through her like he was dissecting her thoughts. “I need your warmth. And I think you need my heart.”
His words rang in Natalia’s mind. They were honest words. Words that made more sense to her than anything had in almost a hundred years.
I am finally needed…by someone I am meant to kill.
She squeezed his hands tighter. “What is this feeling? It is odd. I feel both blissful and breathless…all at once.”
Liam’s eyes were still fixed on hers. He continued to stare at her in marvel. “I don’t know. But it’s wonderful.”