By Phaedra Mintun
"I can't believe Sven Flury is taking you to the Welcome Spring picnic!" Gisele squealed for the hundredth time that morning. Her short fingers reached over Greta's shoulder and plucked a ribbon loose from the pile on the table. Greta sighed. This was easily the twenty-third time Gisele had done her hair and her scalp was beginning to throb from the abuse.
"Why shouldn't he have picked her?" Their father tutted as he passed through the room, searching for the spectacles that were perched on his head.
Gisele gave one final tug and pulled Greta to her feet. Greta stood, nervously smoothing her dirndl, "How do I look?"
Her father squinted at her from his recently recovered glasses. "Like an angel fallen to earth." His broad mouth crinkled his cheeks as he smiled at her, and his round tummy expanded to its impressive limits with pride.
Her mother, who had bustled in to the room a few moments before, shooing the three youngest children ahead of her, paused to admire Greta. "Like a lovely young lady who will be late if she doesn't get her hat on and leave right this very minute!" She held out a new straw hat with dangling ribbons of pure sky blue. Greta screamed in happy surprise and placed the hat on her head.
Gisele surveyed the effect and chewed her lips in envy. Their mother gave them another reminder not to be late and scooted the girls out the door. Gisele skipped ahead down the path and then skipped back, chatting about which young men were going to be attending the festivities and with whom, what events would be taking place and who would likely win each, making grand proclamations about the things she would do next year when she was old enough to attend with a young man, and making guesses about what everyone would be wearing.
Greta needed to do little more than nod occasionally to keep her sister going, so she was free to think about the day. She was frightfully nervous and kept patting and plucking at her new dress and snowy white puff sleeves. In some ways she wished Sven hadn't asked her to the picnic at all. She longed to be as cheerful and lighthearted as her sister. She thought back to all the other years when they had merrily skipped down this path, looking forward to eating all the wonderful treats, playing all the exciting games and spying on the lovers as they walked, whispering along the paths in the nearby woods. The thought of the young couples she had watched made her mouth go dry and her heart speed to a hum. This year she would be one of them. She pictured herself on the strong arm of Sven Flury, looking up into his dark blue eyes. She tried to think of what romantic things might come out of his handsome mouth, and all the witty and charming things she might reply. But somehow her imagination kept getting all wiggly and strange and they would end up talking about goats, or her aunt Tilda's infected ingrown toenail. By the time they reached the festivities, Greta was feeling panicked and confused.
The whole town seemed to be collected together in the large clearing beside Getreten-Felsen-Verletzt-Toe Pond. Gisele clapped her hands and dashed into the flurry of activity. Unsure, Greta stood in the shadows of the path, scanning the crowd for Sven. She didn't see his broad shoulders or his blond hair, which he wore brushed back from his dashingly fine forehead. Again, she ran her fingers over the blue wool of her snug corset,. Gisele had laced it so tight this morning that Greta had been sure she would expire long before she had a chance to model it for her date. She pulled her glossy braids over her shoulder and watched the bows swing at her waist. Then, changing her mind, she tossed them back over her shoulders and let them hang down her back. A moment later, she pulled the right one forward again.
A booming laugh rang from the trees and Greta was swept up and spun around. She screamed and kicked her soft brown shoes. Another booming laugh filled the air around her and she was set on her feet, two large hands clamped on her shoulders, grinding the skin into the bones. "Well, I say I have picked the prettiest girl to be on my arm!"
A pink blush glowed under Greta's creamy skin and long, thick lashes dropped daintily over her large cornflower eyes. Through her lashes she looked up into the impossibly good looking face of Sven Flury, and her heart jumped for joy just from being near him. His firm lips parted and his straight white teeth gleamed in the sunlight. "Would you like to join the picnic? My mother made her cheese tarts." Greta nodded.
Greta had gone to the Welcome Spring picnic every year since she was a baby, but this year she saw it all with new eyes. In past years, she had joined her sister and her friends. She had spent the day playing tag and keeping step in the ring dances and weaving her colored band into the maypole. Today, she was no longer a child, but a fine young lady on the arm of the most promising young man in the village.
Sven led her to the long tables full of food, where each woman had contributed her most touted dish. Greta spotted her mother's strawberry cakes and felt a little tickle of pride. They looked beautiful with the first bright red berries of the season standing proudly on the top of each little cream-covered cake. There were many things that Greta would have loved to pile onto her plate and eat with gusto, but, keeping her stays in mind, she carefully chose only a few items: one of her mother's beautiful little cakes, Mrs. Durrenberger's amazing rolls stuffed with creamy goat cheese and herbs, a slice of her Aunt Tilda's honey bread, and, after some insistence from Sven, a second helping of his mother’s cheese tarts. They found a place to sit near a group of young couples and watched the children play.
Greta beamed with pride to be sitting with Sven in front of the whole village and tried to look placid when some of the other girls shot her jealous glares. A group of youngsters ran past them, chasing and kicking a ball, Sven leaned over to comment on what a fast runner Greta's younger brother was, and even predicted that he would win at the race later. Greta answered in a voice made soft by nerves, charming Sven with her demureness.
Sven rose and offered her his hand. "Would you like to take a stroll with me?" Greta's heart grew wings and fluttered around her chest like a wild bird. She placed her hand in his and followed him to a narrow mountain trail. She couldn't help but smile to herself when she saw the bushes rustle. She knew that there were little spies watching from the sidelines. She imagined what they would be whispering behind their grubby, tan hands. Each would be weighing the couple's merits and flaws, arguing about how many goats each family had and what that would mean in terms of compatibility. They would discuss if there were better matches available in the village. Girls with older sisters would be arguing that Sven could find a better match and girls with brothers would be claiming Greta would make a better match for their sibling.
Sven guided her along the path, pointing out the flowers along the way. He made small talk about the birds and told her about the new cheese cellar he and his brothers were planning to dig next week. Greta was surprised to learn that she had to do very little to keep him talking, and she enjoyed the soothing rhythm of his deep voice. She snuck peeks at him through her lashes as he talked, admiring his square jaw and wide chest. When he caught her gazing at him, she blushed and looked down to admire his long legs, confident stride and well-made boots.
They wandered further into the woods. Greta's mind was busy taking in the wonderful feeling of Sven's thick arms pressed against hers and breathing in his scent. Folded close to him, she was intoxicated by his warm spicy smell. She let him lead her. He asked her questions and she spoke softly, telling him stories about her family, funny things the younger children had done, or about the time her father had thought he lost her and Gisele when he took them to the city. She was pleased when Sven filled the forest with his big booming laugh as she told him about how relieved her father was when he found them curled up, asleep in a chest in the back of the wagon.
They were deep in the woods now. Greta could no longer hear the laughter of the children or the murmur of the older ladies gossiping. Greta looked around. The trees had gotten much thicker, crowding in around them and blocking out the sunlight, making it hard to tell what time of day it was. The bird song had grown quiet and all around them the only sounds were the muttering of the leaves and the groaning of branches. "The races should be starting soon. Should we go back?" Greta suggested.
Sven looked around, and, for a moment, Greta thought that she saw concern flicker like swamp gas in his eyes, but then he nodded stoutly and promenaded her in a slow turn. The view behind them looked surprisingly similar to the view in front of them. Greta glanced around. They were no longer on a path at all! She abused herself in her mind for not paying attention and going astray from the path. Sven led them through the trees with sure and steady steps and Greta gave a soft sigh of relief, feeling safe in the knowledge that Sven had been keeping track of things and would be able to guide them back to the picnic. Sven patted her hand and confided to her that, now that they had moved the goats and cows up the mountain for the spring and summer months, he was looking forward to experimenting with some new cheese recipes he had thought of over the winter.
They picked their way through the tree-made dusk along the forest floor. Sven chatted on about the prize-winning cheese his sister had made last spring, the high hopes his family had of winning again this year, and the three new goats his father planned to buy next week. Greta was paying better attention to their surroundings now, and nothing was looking familiar. She started noting landmarks, as her father had taught her to do. She remembered seeing a fallen tree a while ago, but from here it was just one identical trunk after another. "Do you walk through these woods often?" She asked.
Sven showered her with his gleaming white smile. "No, not exactly often."
A niggle of doubt crept into her mind, like a caterpillar. "My father has an amazing sense of direction in the woods."
Sven nodded. "My father does, too. He is always teaching me useful things, like that moss grows on only one side of the trees. You can use that as a sort of compass."
That caterpillar of doubt was beginning to build a cocoon. "Yes, my father says that, too. That the moss grows on the north side."
Sven nodded and continued walking. Greta watched the trees, hoping to see moss that would help her get her bearings, although she wasn't sure where they were in relation to the picnic, but at least it would reassure her that they weren't walking in circles. They passed a fallen tree and Greta stopped."My feet are a little tired. Can we stop and sit for a moment?"
Sven gave her another of his big, shiny smiles. "Of course!" They sat down on the bench-like log and made small talk about village happenings, weddings that had happened lately, Mr. Brust's horse that had been caught nibbling Mrs. Caflish's garden three times this spring already, and who would be expanding their farms. Sven pulled her little foot into his lap and gently rubbed her arches. Greta blushed at how sweet he was, but, while he was distracted, she fiddled with the bow on her braid, working free one of the ribbons. She casually dropped the ribbon on the ground beside the fallen trunk. "We should probably get heading back now. I think it is getting dark."
Sven nodded and pulled her to her feet. They walked on, chatting as they went. Greta kept her eyes sharp, looking for anything that might be familiar. She thought she saw the trees thinning to their left and suggested that they go that direction, but Sven assured her that he knew where they were going and led on. Greta wanted to believe in him so she followed, trying to convince herself that they were not lost.
They walked on and on and Greta was becoming more and more concerned. Sven did his best to keep the conversation going, telling her stories about the goats and cows they had raised, which ones gave the best milk and all the types of cheese and butter they made. But pretty soon they were plodding in silence. The shadows beneath the trees were thickening. Greta knew it would be getting dark soon and it would be too dangerous to keep walking. She suggested that they collect stones to leave as markers, a while later she asked if they might draw an x in the dirt with their feet when they made turns, which they were doing more and more frequently. Each time she tried to help, Sven laughed and smiled at her with his large white smile and told her that he knew exactly where they were and he would have them back at the picnic very soon. Greta sighed and walked on beside him, the caterpillar of doubt growing a little more in its cocoon with each step.
They made another one of Sven's erratic turns and began walking straight toward a fallen tree: a fallen tree with a small coil of ribbon sitting beside it. The caterpillar of doubt burst from its cocoon as a full-blown butterfly and fluttered wildly around Greta's mind. "We are lost!"
Sven didn't smile this time. He frowned down at her. His strong lips sinking into a child-like pout and his fair eyebrows crinkling over his blue eyes. "No, we aren't." He said sullenly. "I know where we are going."
Greta marched over to the fallen tree. "If you know where we are, then why did you lead us back to this tree?"
Sven scowled. "That is a different log."
Greta felt her jaw jut out just like it did when she argued with one of her siblings. Her father called it her stubborn face and everyone in her family knew the argument was over once Greta's jaw was set. "I dropped one of my hair ribbons here." She picked up the little colored strip and held it out toward him, raising her eyebrows.
Sven's scowl deepened, making him look like a sulking child. "I'm not lost."
Greta shook her head. "Fine, you can be not lost all by yourself. I am going to find my way back to the village." She stomped off in the direction in which she had seen the trees thinning. She hoped she could get out from under the cover of the trees, get a gauge for how late it was and get a sense of direction from the sun. She could hear Sven following her at a distance, dragging his feet as he went.
Greta came out into the clearing and looked around. The sun wasn't high enough for her to see it, but just over the treetops, she could see a ring of gold sunset. She looked around her. The grass was low and she thought she could make out a few hoofprints. Sven came and stood behind her. She smiled at him, and, feeling bad for shouting at him, she decided to let him in on her thinking. "The sun is setting over there," She pointed to the glowing treetops. "So we know that is west, which would be helpful if we knew which direction the village is from here. But I think this meadow has been used for grazing lately, which means there must be a path that leads to the village around somewhere."
Sven nodded, but continued to be petulant. At last, they decided to walk around the edge of the clearing and look for a path. Standing back to back, they began pacing away from each other, skirting the edge of the clearing. Greta found two places that could be clear paths. They met again and stood in the clearing. Sven looked cheerful again and pointed to a gap in the trees. "I found the path, come follow me."
Greta held back. "I found two places that might be paths. I think we should both look at all three and decide which one to take."
Sven spun around, looking exasperated. "I found the right path. I have always known where we were. I was just giving you an adventure."
Greta put her hands on her hips. "Why don't you just admit that you got us lost?"
Sven stood up straight and tall. "If I have been lost for even one minute today, may lightning come from the cloudless clear blue sky and strike me down!"
The air fizzled, as if it had suddenly filled with tiny bubbles. A strange metallic taste filled Greta's mouth and made her want to spit. A crooked line of bright blue light slithered across the dusky sky and burrowed into the earth no more than a foot from Sven. He was thrown backward. His boot split open and jumped away from his foot. All of his blond hair stood on end, quivering in the breeze.
Greta ran to where he lay flat on his back. His big toe stuck out from a hole in his sock on the foot that was now bootless. She hovered over him, unsure of how to help. He opened one of his deep blue eyes. "Whatever path you want. I have no idea where we are. I will follow you, just get us home."