Oh and wasn’t she a mess?
The borrowed gown hung in tatters just below her bloodstained knees, the fancy pearled shoes discarded somewhere in the swamp. The bridal bed had gone unused, prepared for her, but never meant for her. It was warm, it was safe, it was comfortable even, but it was never really hers. None of that life had really been hers.
The ring had belonged to his mother, and his mother’s mother before her. Where had she left the ring? She wasn’t quite sure. Somewhere in the grass around the church, or perhaps on the walkway leading away, or maybe it was still sitting safely on the dresser? It no longer mattered. They would find the ring she thought, but she would no longer be attached to it.
They wouldn’t bother looking for her…
Not that they could find her if they tried. She had wandered off the main road long ago. She had made her way through valleys and meadows, past churches and graveyards. She couldn’t even find herself now, and it felt good.
She didn’t know where she was going, but she knew that she still had a long way to go. So she veered off on to a small path and then another, on until she found a trail so little used it was barely there at all. Almost instantly the forest engulfed her. Small scratches appeared on her skin, but she was little aware of them. Overgrown and unkind the branches hugged her too close, pulling at her tender flesh.
Had she ever really been alive before? She had rested very little on this journey and eaten next to nothing. The pain in her feet was exquisite, the ache in her belly divine and somewhere on the edge of her bliss was the awareness that her body was weakening.
Yet, even this was somehow spiritual.
Suddenly, she pitched forward and the ground was rising up to meet her. The rock that stopped her was so small, so insignificant. Her toe found it, and then her knee found a larger stone, and a long, deep gouge opened across her shin. Pain, pain, more pain.
This too was beautiful.
Examining her wounds she found nothing serious, but it would slow her progress for a day or two. Looking around, she spotted a small clearing. She tried to stand, but her body lacked the energy to pull itself upright. The best she could muster was a crawl, so crawl she did.
Once in the clearing, she sighed and leaned against a log to rest. Soon it would be too dark to find her way out. She knew she must move, but her body rebelled. A stiffness had settled into her bones like none she had ever felt. She tried to move again, but couldn’t.
It seemed that if she must rest, this would be as good a place as any. Ripping away layers of her dress she tried to bandage her wounds and cover her most exposed flesh. Making herself a bed of pine needles she gathered leaves to cover herself, she thought it might help, but if it did she could not tell.
She only meant to close her eyes for a moment, but when she opened them the light in the forest had changed drastically. In her dreams, the wolves had been coming for her. Opening her eyes, their hungry cries continued. She was totally and completely alone, and so exposed she may as well have been naked.
The wolves howled again, closer now. So very close.
For the first time since she had run, a panic set in. She was cold, she was hungry, and she was very frightened. She had thought herself the lone wolf when she left, now with the real wolves howling all around she just felt scared.
The wolves seemed to be everywhere now, she could feel their eyes weighing her, hear their breath as they sampled her scent. She had not meant to cry, fought it with all her strength, but once the first tear broke free the rest came forward without pause.
So close now.
The wolves would come to her she thought, and when they found her, she would surrender. She would turn and offer her tender belly to them. She would give them her soft white throat. She would surrender her most fragile of parts to their precious mercy.
And then she would rest.
Their breath was on her cheek now, warm and moist. She closed her eyes and prepared herself for the pain but there was none… Instead a warmth filled her body like none she had ever known. Perhaps this was what death felt like she thought… perhaps dying, dying was bliss.
She opened her eyes, but that incredible warmth still coursed through her body. Her eyes searched the darkened forest, finding only shadows within shadows. Something was there. No, not something, someone.
The forest was eerily quiet. Even the crickets sensed this presence. She could not see her hero, but she could feel him. The wolves were still out there watching, she felt them, but they were calm now. His presence had soothed them. Was it he who held the wolves at bay, or was it he who had called them?
“Don’t be afraid. I’m here.” said a strong voice, soft and deep. All around her she felt him, as if… as if, she were wrapped in a lovers embrace…
Then she felt his lips pressing in on hers, warm and sweet. She could taste his sincerity, as well as his urgency. It infected her, and she felt herself returning his kiss with just as much intensity. Their lips ignited a fire that warmed even her most frozen parts. Probing, seeking, wanting, she gave herself to him.
“I’ve been waiting for you.” he said. His voice was like melted chocolate, soothing her aching soul. No longer hungry, no longer tired, no longer alone, her entire being fell into him. She gasped, and pressed herself into his kiss. .
“I have always loved you.” He whispered. And she believed him.
Full. She felt full. No, whole, that’s what she felt. As if every step of her journey had been leading to this very moment. “I’ve waited so long to find you…” She whispered just before drifting off in his arms.
“Always…” he said.
“Always,” she agreed. She drifted off to sleep, cradled in his presence.
The next morning, she awoke alone. A small fur covered her bare flesh. She called out, but no answer came. No sign of her hero to be found. She braced herself with her palm and sat up, her hand brushing against something cold and round. Startled she watched as an apple rolled down the small slope next to her and lodged itself beneath a log. She found a small pile of nuts and berries nearby.
And beneath the feast, another soft fur for her chilled body.
She ate a bit, then found the nearby stream and drank until she feared she would burst..She still felt weak, so she laid back down and covered herself. Staring at the sky above, she drifted in and out of sleep. Each time she awoke, the sun had risen higher and higher in the sky, and then it began to fall again.
All day she waited, but he did not return, and by nightfall she had convinced herself that he was just an illusion after all. Born of fatigue, and pain, and loneliness.
“Where have you gone my hero?” she asked the soil, the rocks, the sky… but no answer came. She had been tired, scared… He had been a fantasy… nothing more… imaginings of a strained mind… and as the moon rose over the forest, she was certain she had dreamed him.
It was of no matter.
She had been strengthened, and when the sun rose she could go on. Perhaps that’s what the purpose of the fantasy had been, to heal her so she could go on. She would go on, and that’s what really mattered she thought as she drifted off…
The wolves were howling again. The forest was dark, the moon absent. And again, he was there… He brought food for her, and she ate. She found herself telling him everything. She told him of her escape, and her freedom, and all of the things she had seen. He listened, and stroked her hair, and they explored one another late into the night.
“Why must you only come to me at night my love? Are you a creature of the night?” She teased.
” Only for you.” And he kissed her. “Always for you.”
When she woke, the smell of cooking meat filled her nostrils. A fire burned nearby. The were fresh fruits and nuts by the fire as well. She rotated the meat slowly while nibbling on a strange mushroom she had never seen before. It was odd, but she found to be exquisite. She set it aside and tended to the rest of her meal, before returning to it as if it were a proper dessert.
After her meal, she busied herself investigating the small clearing. She would have to move on soon, of course, but there was no reason she should not make herself comfortable, in case she chose to stay for another day or two.
Upon closer inspection, she found a cluster of bushes with a small opening in the front. She entered the makeshift door and saw instantly that she was not the first to find this place. An old blanket lie rotting in the corner, along with a single stocking. She went to throw them in the fire, but when she moved them a steel plate and crude cutlery set fell out of the folds. She took the dishes to the stream to wash them. Then, she took the blanket to the river and rinsed it out. It made a decent door.
She spent the day tidying their little nest but he was never far from her mind. Who he was, where he was, even what he was. Such a delightful mystery. She was feeling quite content with herself as she nodded off that evening.
When his arms slipped around her, she awoke. He had brought her some more furs to line their love nest, and they made use of them well into the night.
And so it went for many days and nights. If you asked either of them how long they had been there like that, they may answer in terms of hours, and they may answer in years. Every day she promised herself that she would go on, but, she never ventured beyond the clearing. Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months they danced their dance.
And if you asked either of them how long they had loved one another, they would answer “Always.”
She thought about the path sometimes, but as time passed she could no longer remember why she had felt it so important.
Then the hard winter came, the hardest she had ever seen. Even the warmest of furs could not hold out the chill, and food was so very scarce. She could not venture outside the shelter for more than a few minutes. Throughout the forest life was struggling to hold on, and he could not come to her as often. He was tired, and so many responsibilities weighed on his shoulders.
On the nights he did not come to her, she felt very alone. She wrapped herself up in the furs and got as close to the fire as she could, falling asleep to the sound of her growling stomach. She stoked the fire and told herself stories to pass the time. She made marks in the dirt counting the hours until his return. She sang, and danced, and talked to the spirits of the fire.
And she waited.
But, now and then she wondered what she was waiting for?
Then, ithe fever came. Shivers wracked her sweat soaked body. She wanted to vomit, needed to vomit, but there was nothing in her stomach to expel, she gagged and spit. Her stomach churned with unbearable cramps but nothing came out.
She melted snow on her tongue just to cool the fire momentarily.
As the fever deepened its hold the strangest visions danced in front of her eyes. She saw loved ones long dead, and old friends long forgotten hidden in the flames. She reached for them, but they faded into the rising smoke.
Cold, cold, her hand felt cold…
No, hot, it was burning like the fire… The pain pulled her from her trance and she stared at the blackened and blistered hand in front of her. The pain was excruciating, but it sharpened her. Crawling to the door she pushed the blanket aside and pushed her hand into a pile of snow.
Freezing and burning. Burning and freezing.
She laid in the doorway cooling her burning flesh and staring up at the stars. In the stars she thought she saw her, the girl she had glimpsed the day she had climbed out the window of the church. The girl she had been on her way to becoming.
She warmed snow over the fire and washed her body using the remaining rags from the now blackened dress. When she leaned over the plate to wash her face she saw it. Screaming she tossed the plate into the corner. The face of a hag, she had seen it as clear as day. An old, gray, bitter woman had stared back at her.
Only the eyes were still recognizable as the girl she had once been.
Her eyes fell upon her hand, gray, withered, like… like an old woman. Her feet, the legs… her body was rotting away as if she were hundreds of years old. How long had she been here?
“Always…” the forest whispered, “always.”
It was where they belonged. Wasn’t it? No, that was not right. She had run from something, yes, but she had been running towards something too. What was it? There was no answer. She just knew that had always been here. He had always been here.
Why couldn’t she think? What manner of witchcraft filled this place?
Sometime in the night he came to her. He spooned a cold, strange tasting broth made of mushrooms, soft moss, and tender shoots into her mouth. It soothed her throat instantly, leaving a strange tingle behind that spread slowly through her blood. Her took her throbbing hand and washed it clean, smearing a warm oily salve across her wounds, he dressed it in a wrap made from soft grasses and moss. Then he soaked bits of the moss in the broth, and placed them on her cheeks and forehead, then her chest, her stomach, her hands and her feet.
The smell in her nostrils was almost unbearable but the fever was receding, she could feel the awful confusion lifting. “Don’t leave me again, please?” But he said nothing, He gave her more soup before sunrise and confirmed that the worst of the fever was gone. He didn’t say good-bye, but when the sun came up she knew that he would be gone.
The vision of the hag was still fresh in her mind. Her flesh was no longer gray, no longer looked withered, but it still looked different somehow. Somehow.
She spent the day pacing, but when night fell she found no rest. She tried her best to sleep, but her eyes refused to stay closed. It was nearly morning before she felt his arm slip around her waist. “I waited for you…” she said.
His kiss engulfed her once again, reaching, searching. She pushed him away. “No, we must talk…” but she was so tired, she could not quite remember what they were supposed to talk about.
“We can talk later my love, after…” he whispered.
She pushed herself away and stood up. He reached for her and pulled the blanket away instead, exposing her nakedness. In the firelight she saw herself, the bare gray flesh made it all clear again. They had to go, had to leave this place.
“Something is very wrong here. We need to go. Now…” panic was rising in her voice but his reply was soft, and even. “We can’t leave, we belong here.”
She did not belong here, and neither did he. “This place, it makes you forget. It makes you stay… somehow. Can we please just go?” She pleaded.
His voice was stern now, almost cold. “I belong here, and just a while longer and you will belong as well.”
“There are no birds, no squirrels, nothing but the wolves, the wolves and that awful silence.” How could she not feel it before? How could he not feel it now? Even the air was sour. “We do not belong here.” She waited, but he said nothing. “Nobody belongs here.”
“This is home.” There would be no moving him.
“But don’t you feel it? It’s draining us.” She insisted.
” Not draining you, changing…” That eerie calmness in his voice again.
She stopped. ” What do you mean changing?”
“The forest is accepting you. It’s slow, and sometimes painful but in the end you will belong.” he replied.
In all of the time they had been together she had never truly seen him. Now, for the first time she could see the source of the voice. She could finally see what she had failed to see for so long. He had been human once, she was certain of that, but that time was long past. Where his fingers once were, were long spindly branches. Leaves sprouted from his chest, and vines twisted their way through his hair. The forest had claimed him, he had become part of it.
Just as she was becoming…
She wondered as she looked at the endless rows of trees around her how many souls had given up and allowed the forest to claim them. How many had lost their humanity in this place?
” Oh, my love… What has this place done to you?” Then weakly, “Maybe, maybe… we can still leave…” Her voice trailed off. Even as she said it, she knew it wasn’t true. I was already too late when she found him here. But it wasn’t too late for her…
She tried run, she tried but strange vines had entangled her feet. The vines ran down her legs, through her feet and disappeared deep beneath the ground. Horrified, she pulled and dug at them, but they had sink deep into her flesh. “Help me. At least help me escape.” she pleaded.
She pulled and pulled into a single one of the roots finally snapped. Excruciating pain filled her. Blood dripped from the open wound. More roots snapped. Her hands were slick with blood. “Please help me?” She begged.
But he said nothing, did nothing, only watched her with a strange curiosity. Picking up a sharp rock, she began sawing at the remaining roots until the last root finally broke free.
Pulling herself to her feet she took the first painful step.
“Please, don’t make me say good-bye my love, come with me.” But there was nothing.
Just as when she had entered the clearing, a trail of bloody footprints followed her escape. Each step was agony.
She heard the wolves howling somewhere in the distance. She tried not to look back, but she couldn’t help it.
“But, I will be alone.” He said.
“Yes. We both will.” she replied .
She didn’t have the strength to save him, she barely had the power to save herself. But, she could still save herself If she just took one more step.
So, she did.
Her heart was heavy with sorrow, but one pain filled step at a time she left him behind.
In all their time together she had thought him to be her strength, but in the end it was her strength and hers alone that escaped the forest.
She turned and looked one last time before she left the clearing but now it was impossible to distinguish him from the others.
Best to leave the forest for the trees.
“I love you.” she whispered. And she walked on.
She stepped out of the cover of trees and back on to the main path. For the first time in a long time she saw the sun hanging in blue sky again.
Her heart ached for him with each step. As she basked in the sunlight, she began to feel herself coming back. Just a bit, but a bit was better than nothing.
She asked the sky how long she would love him, and the sun whispered back… “Always…”
…and so with her back to the forest and her face to the sun, her next journey began.