She thought of the last time she’d been here - nearly two years ago, when she was only fourteen years old. Now she was nearly sixteen, practically an adult, she felt, and this trip was necessary because of that. Now, for many reasons, she could - and had to - make her own decisions. That much was a necessity. Her life had changed irrevocably since then. Perhaps by returning to this cottage, to Muzo’s cottage, she could begin again.
On her previous journey, she’d set out to gather gura nuts that fell from the trees in late fall. She hadn’t ventured that far from home, just over the mountain and into the next valley. Without warning, the sky had filled with low, white clouds. Before long, snow was densely falling, and what had once seemed familiar no longer was. She’d become cold and disoriented in the snow, and found herself drawn to the sound of an axe chopping wood. She’d nearly stumbled into the bentwood fence, startling a large man who was chopping kindling inside a nearby shed.
Approaching the gate of the cottage now, she thought of that man, Muzo, and how he’d noticed her, mid-swing. He had brought his axe down gracefully, skillfully, and hurried to this very gate. As she unlatched it and continued to the tiny cottage, she thought of his grey eyes, his handsome face surrounded by dark curls of hair. He’d led her into the house, stoking the small fire and making tea from dried roots that he powdered in a small ceramic bowl. The tea had warmed her, and then made her so sleepy that she hadn’t been able to stay awake. The last image she could recall before her slumber was his eyes as he carried her to the small bed in the corner of the cottage.
The dreams she’d had! They’d been so vivid, so colorful, so bright! That was why she had returned. In the dream, she’d watched herself, as if from above. She went about the cottage, through the forest, as she always had, but rather than the drab greens and greys of the woods, everything was garish and multi-colored. Muzo was there, too, and he wore not the tan tunic he’d worn chopping wood, but instead one of a lively violet and green that shimmered in the light. In the dream, he’d kissed her. His mouth was warm and sweet, melting into hers.
Tansa’s hand trembled as it rose to jingle the string of small bells that hung near the door of the cottage. First, though, from under a blanket that covered the basket, a whimper arose and then settled. She peered beneath the blanket, and a child smiled at her, his grey eyes twinkling. She gently pushed back the bonnet that covered most of his fine black curls and gave his tiny nose a tender tap. He giggled and grabbed her finger in his chubby hand. The wind whipped up and rang the string of bells violently, and Tansa could hear someone approaching from inside.
The door opened, and Muzo stood in the doorway, his curls brushing the top of the frame. His eyes widened at Tansa, but he said nothing. Tansa wasn’t deterred. She held the basket up, to show Muzo the baby within, just over a year old. The child blinked his grey eyes expectantly at Muzo, who stepped back to permit the pair entrance.
A small fire crackled within the hearth. In the back of the one room cottage, a shivering girl gripped a steaming mug at the table. She looked exactly like Tansa, right down to her apron, a small tear separating the strap from the bib. Tansa looked at apron she herself wore - and yes, there was the same rip, the one she’d repaired with fine stitches after she’d returned home from Muzo’s house.
Tansa and the girl at the table looked at one another, blinking, trying to make sense of who was whom and what was happening. No one said a word. Tansa set the heavy basket on the floor.
After a few moments, the girl at the table put her mug down, hard, on the table. Her eyes closed, and then her head nodded once, twice, and fell forward into her arms. Muzo held up a finger, signaling to Tansa that she should wait. Then, he went to the table and took the girl into his arms and carried her to the small bed in the corner. Easily, he arranged her on it and removed her shoes. Then he covered her with a multi-colored quilt, only item with color in the drab cottage, and kissed her on the lips.
Tansa watched the scene, all the while remembering her multi-colored dream. She felt as if she were watching herself, the girl on the bed. It was all so familiar. The baby squirmed in its basket and then babbled happily.
Muzo turned to Tansa, shaking his hair from his eyes. He smiled. Muzo took the baby from the basket and they looked at one another intently. The baby grabbed a lock of Muzo’s hair and laughed as Muzo danced with him. He set the baby on the floor, and the baby took a tentative first step, and then another. And as it walked toward Tansa, it grew. With each step he grew taller and older, his clothes stretching to fit his body. He was now nearly as tall as Tansa.
Tansa rubbed her eyes and pinched her arm. This was all so strange. She looked again, and the baby was now as tall as Muzo. They stood with arms folded, huge, identical grins revealing their perfect teeth. Tansa took a step backward, toward the door. Muzo stepped forward so that he was even with this creature that resembled himself exactly; this creature that moments ago was a baby in a basket, one that Tansa had carried in her arms over the mountain just this morning.
Both of their eyes locked on Tansa’s and she found that she couldn’t move. Her feet seemed attached to the floor.
“Tea?” they asked, and Tansa nodded helplessly, even as she felt herself swirling into a colorful dream.