By Riley Faust, TIWP Student
The Whispering Woods were strangely quiet.
Soft, dewy grass blanketed the forest floor and silenced my footsteps. Rays of sunlight passed through the rough branches of trees, raining down light. It wasn’t warm, but rather a comfortable cold, a temperature that felt fitting among the dark, velvety bark of the trees. The sky was obscured by a web of leaves and branches. I stood there, among the ancient giants, in their dark shadows, and waited. There were no birds calling, looking for another, nor lizards skittering among the bushes. No squirrels hidden in the hollows of trees, nor deer prancing in the grass. No wolves prowling the underbrush for their prey, nor foxes crouched in a burrow. The leaves and branches were still, not swayed by the whistling wind or from leopards jumping from branch to sturdy branch. There were no unicorns waiting in a sunlit clearing to be found, to stare at you with those gentle eyes before leaping away, never to be seen again, at least not by you. No dragons sleeping peacefully in the hollowed out trunk of a fallen tree, wings tucked against their bodies. No phoenixes watching from a low branch, feathers alight with bright reds and oranges and yellows, but staying extinguished until it flew free through a clearing to the sky. There were no fish swimming in the lake, nor mermaids laughing underwater in their garbled yet joyful tones. No voices coming from beyond the trees, the ones that always stayed beyond.
With my eyes on my feet, I stepped around the dried leaves and fragile twigs. I went wherever the grass took me, the town’s worn path long abandoned. The townspeople would find the silence sinister. They used to tell me that if it was silent, something was very wrong. And, of course, that wasn’t necessarily incorrect. I simply like to think that we have different definitions of wrong. You see, they aren’t bad people, just a bit too human for my taste. The forest seemed to agree with me. It was one of those things I just knew, maybe from a particular rustle of branches whenever they crossed the threshold, or the way the birds would cry out in annoyance. Perhaps it was from the growl of a pack of wolves in the bushes nearby that would send them running out, then the strange sound that I determined to be their laughter in the area afterwards. Maybe it was the way the foxes would sink their heads just a bit deeper into their burrows until only their chocolate brown noses were visible, or the way the deer would run off to another part of the forest. The phoenixes would disappear into the branches of the trees and stop their gentle chirps. Even the blades of grass would shiver with their presence, one they deemed wholly unnatural. The voices, however, would just get louder, whispering their unintelligible words. It had driven a couple of people crazy over the years, or so I’d heard. Regardless, its message was clear: you don’t belong here.
One time, when I was just a little girl, maybe two or three, I wandered into the woods. That was many, many, many years ago, yet I still remember it as if it happened yesterday. I quickly lost my way back then, as I had been drawn into the trees by the voices. I wasn’t yet old enough for them to scare me. They weren’t sinister or threatening, but welcoming, telling me to come in, to dance among the trees and play in the grass. As I toddled through the trees, animals came to watch me. Birds peering down on me from the tops of branches, foxes sticking their heads through the bushes. I reached out my hands to pet one, and it pulled its head back. After a few seconds, it slowly stuck its head back through and hesitantly let me brush it with my tiny hands. I let out a gurgling laugh, and the fox nuzzled its nose into my stomach, making me fall and laugh even more. Soon, more creatures came to look at the strange little human in their forest. They seemed so wondrous to me at the time, and I like to think I was the same to them. The birds played in my hair, the deer pranced around me, the lizards scampered around my feet. Squirrels chattered and gave me acorns. The wolf pack let me run my hands through their fur and tickled my face with their warm breath. Even the large leopard came and laid by my feet. After a while, I started to get hungry. I tried to tell them, but they didn’t understand. At my tears, the troupe of animals guided me to a clearing surrounded by berry bushes. One of the wolves bit off a branch and gave it to me. Happily, I started munching on the colorful fruits. When I turned around, standing there was a grand unicorn. Its coat was silvery-white, and it had eyes that matched the dark brown of the tree bark. Most extraordinary was its horn. It was swirled but straight, shining in rainbow colors when the sun hit it. It gently nickered at me, and I smiled. Eventually, at the distant, panicked calls of the townspeople, they guided me back to the trail and the people took me home. From then on, I found myself drawn to the forest. I like to think it was the day it adopted me, and me alone, as one of them.
When I was around eight, I started sneaking out to the forest at night. At first, the forest and its residents were hostile towards me, growling from the bushes and rustling the leaves behind me, but then something changed. Maybe they recognized me, or just realized I wasn’t afraid like the others were. Even as the wolf pack approached me for the first time, hackles raised and mouths twisted into snarls, I wasn’t afraid. I let them push their noses into my hand, and something flashed in their eyes. Their faces relaxed into smiles, and I ran my fingers through their thick fur. One howled, and the others followed. It was as if they were announcing my return. Welcoming me home.
The other animals soon joined us. The birds sang, the deer nickered and pranced around, the leopard let out a triumphant roar from the trees. They swarmed around me, leaving bits of fur and feather on my clothes and in my hair. They were all so warm. I spent the night there, exploring and picking wild berries. As the first streams of light made their way through the leaves, I said goodbye to my old friends and snuck back to the village. I was exhausted, but it was worth it.
For a while, or until I was about fourteen, I went to the forest around once a week. Each time, the animals welcomed me, and soon enough I was as much a part of the forest as they were. One winter night, I slipped out of the window in my room for my weekly trip. I wore my favorite winter boots and my heavy wool coat. As silently as I could, I snuck through the snow. It crunched under my feet. Suddenly, in the direction of the village, a voice rang out.
“Who’s there! Stop right there!” I froze. It was a man’s voice, although I was too panicked to recognize it. Slowly, I turned around. He was walking as fast as the snow would allow, cursing as it stuck to his boot. He looked up again, and his face was illuminated by the lantern. It was Hans. He was one of my father’s oldest friends, one who treated me as his own daughter. I couldn’t count the number of times he sat at our table until late, drinking beer and laughing loudly enough to wake the neighbors. Most importantly, he was a hunter. And a good one at that.
So I ran.
He shouted, and I could hear the snow under his boots as he ran after me. He cried out as he slipped before getting up and running even faster. I looked behind me only to see the lantern gaining on me. Ahead of me was the forest. Just 10 more seconds and I could escape within the maze of trees, run into the safety of the animal’s protection. Listen to the whispering voices as they led him astray. Alas, I didn’t make it that far. When I was just a couple paces from the edge of the forest, his heavy body crashed on top of me. I writhed in an attempt to escape, but it was no use. I looked over to see the lantern thrown in the snow, its light dimmed. Hans lifted his body off of mine and flipped me over. His expression went from one of anger to confusion. I stared back at him as he glanced between me and the forest edge.
“What are you doing out here at this time of night? You know it’s dangerous out there.”
I opened my mouth to answer, then closed it. Nothing I said could possibly please him. He kept staring, then got up and pulled me to my feet. His grip on my arm was tight, almost enough that it hurt, as he dragged me back to the village. I snuck a glance back at the forest, and a pair of yellow eyes peeked out from the darkness. I held their gaze for a moment before waving one last time, and they retreated back into the darkness of the trees.
Hans roughly guided me through the streets, the only indicator of where they were being the lanterns that hung from poles and lit the path. Before long, we arrived at my family’s door. His knuckles hit the wood with a sharp crack that was deafening in the silence of night. Drowsy and bleary-eyed, my father opened the door, taking in the sight of me and Hans. Before my father could get in a word, Hans spoke.
“She was going to the woods.” Horror took over my father’s features, and he stared at me in disbelief.
“Thank you for bringing her back.” His hand assumed the rough grip on my arm that Hans’ had a moment ago. “I can take care of it from here.”
The rest of the night was a blur.
I remember the harsh slam of the door that shook the whole house. I remember his raised voice, the anger in his hands as he waved them a bit too close to my face. His words escape me. I remember how he pointed, arm shaking, for me to go to my room, the “and stay there” clearly implied. I remember the next day, how they came in and boarded up the window from both sides. Their worried looks, the way they flinched when took a step too close. I remember the silence that followed, the birds’ song locked in a world out of my reach.
Whenever I went out after that, someone always accompanied me. They never touched me. Maybe they thought I didn’t hear the whispers, ridiculous rumors that followed me around. Some thought I had a secret lover in the woods, that I had a secret child with him. Others thought I was possessed, by what no one knew. Either way, they all agreed I was impure, something unnatural.
The days went by slowly. At night, I would sit in the black and stare at where the window used to be. There was a small crack, so slight you barely fit a fingernail through it. It didn’t allow me to see outside, but a bit of pure, silvery light filtered through. I would run my fingers through it, feeling the phantom warmth on my skin. Seasons passed by, the snow melting into green hills and bright flowers that were kept just out of my reach. The dewy grass seemed to call my name, luring me towards the trees it disappeared under. The leaves were dark green, almost black in the shadows, but lighting up under the bright rays of sun into beautiful pieces of life.
Two years passed.
By the time I was 16, the rumors had mostly dissipated. I was normal. I didn’t glance longingly at the forest whenever I went out, keeping my eyes on the roads. People laughed with me, and fear didn’t fill their eyes whenever I went their way. I could go places on my own again. But my window remained boarded up, and I still ran my fingers through the reminder of what was.
“This is James.” My father nudged me towards the man, who then took me in his arms. He must have been at least 22, if not older. “His family just moved from the village next door.”
I pushed myself away, but kept a smile on my face. “Nice to meet you, James.”
He licked his lips before he spoke. “Nice to meet you as well, doll.” I struggled to keep my face from twisting in disgust. He kept looking me up and down. I knew what came next.
“He’ll be your husband in just a couple of weeks.” I nodded and looked down. Of course, my fate was much bigger, too important to be weighed down by a man. My mind was already racing with possibilities, ideas of escape and freedom. Two weeks. That was my timeline.
From that point on, James was by my side from the moment I left the house to the moment I returned. Unfortunately, this didn’t leave much time for planning on my part. I would stay up late to work out potential escape routes, but the distance from the town to the forest was enough for James to run and catch me.
I had to get away from him.
My opportunity arose the night before my doom. The whole town gathered for a celebration in the town square. It was tradition to celebrate the night before, since it was assumed the couple would be… busy after the wedding. I had all but lost hope. As we walked, James kept a strong grip on my hand. I wore a cornflower blue dress that fanned out around my ankles and twirled as I walked. On top, I layered a white wool shawl that I clutched around my shoulders. People cheered as we approached. Music was playing, people were dancing. In another universe, it would be paradise. James took my waist in his hands and started swaying to the music, smiling all the while. I put my hands on his shoulders and tried not to throw up.
The night flew by with the music. I was spun around more times than I can count. Finally, as dusk approached, we stopped for dinner. There were plates with golden roasted quail, potatoes and carrots seasoned with herbs and held over the fire. Even loafs of bread, perfect for dipping in the sauce made of wild mushrooms. The main dish made the breath catch in my throat. It was a huge, spit roasted deer. Everyone seemed to cheer as it was brought out, but I knew where it came from. Or, I suppose I was the only one who actually cared. It was all delicious, but it didn’t erase the guilt from my mind. I wondered if the deer had children waiting for her to come home. I wondered when, or even if, they would realize she never would.
The celebration died down as it got darker. The fire had been reduced to embers, and the lamps began to flicker. We waved goodbye to everyone, and they shouted their congratulations after us. Cold air bit at my shoulders. We were almost home when I realized. I tapped James’ shoulder.
“I forgot my shawl back in the square.”
He released my hand. “I’ll go grab it for you. Wait here.”
I stood there as he walked back. It took me a moment to realize I was alone. Really and truly alone. I looked around one more time, and then I ran. Ran through the streets that kept me captive, past the houses of imprisonment, away from my life and the artificial lights that made me long for the dark. I was halfway across the field between my lives when I heard an angry shout. Footsteps behind me echoed mine. I ran like hell, my legs beginning to ache. They got closer and closer until they were almost on top of me. I was so close! I could almost reach out and touch the dark, velvety bark of the trees when a hand grabbed my own. When I spun around, there stood James. The rage on his features was barely visible, but it was there. He raised his hand, and I flinched back. As he brought it down, he shouted.
“You little bi-” Before he could finish his words, and before his hand could reach me, he screamed, all high-pitched and whiny. James let me go once again, and I backed away. I heard a low growl echo around me. Surrounding me, protecting me, was the wolf pack. Their yellow eyes glowed in the dark. One of them, probably the largest of them all, had sunk its teeth into James’ leg. Another gently grabbed the fabric at the bottom of my dress and pulled me into the safety and cover of the forest.
Tears sprang to my eyes as I continued into the forest. Even after so long, the trees were the same, the hidden path exactly as I remembered. The wolves took me to the clearing, the cover of trees giving way to reveal the bright, moonlit sky. I couldn’t see the light from the village, but I didn’t need to. The normal smattering of stars had given way to a wondrous, star-filled sky. The dark blue night was covered in them, and purple and yellow split the sky with even more stars.
A wet nose nudged my ankle, and I looked down to find one of the wolves staring up at me. He walked a couple of steps and then looked back at me, silently telling me to follow. I glanced back up at the bright, colorful expanse above me one more time before padding across the grass. The wolf led me to a large tree next to the clearing with soft, green moss clinging to its base. A few more wolves surrounded it. They all looked at me with a strange sort of kindness, one that I would almost call uniquely animal simply because I never saw it on the faces of any of the people in my village. I removed my flat shoes and let the grass tickle my feet as I laid down. I felt a wet nose nuzzle at my arm, and I lifted it to run my fingers through the wolf’s unbelievably thick fur. Instead, it put its head under my arm and laid down next to me, warmth seeping through my thin dress. Another joined it on my other side, and I relished in their heat. I gently scratched their heads, and they pressed their heads further into my side.
For the first time in a long time, I fell asleep with a smile on my face.
Now, the people of the village are long changed, not as rooted in archaic ways of forced marriage and control. Their houses evolved from small huts with thatched roofs to large, bright buildings made from not just wood, but a million other strange materials I had never seen before. Their clothing changed too, new fabrics that I could identify as different even from the edges of the forest. However, one thing still remained. They still stayed away from the forest, abandoning balls to its depths. Often, I would find a wolf chewing on, and easily destroying, one of those discarded balls. It always made me laugh.
I made my way to the clearing that held so many memories, a place so soft and green it seemed magical, and I supposed by many people’s standards it would be. There, sitting in the grass, surrounded by the descendants of the animals I had first called my friends, was a little girl with white-blond hair. The various creatures surrounding her were all relatively quiet as not to scare her. They sensed my approach, and turned to me, a question in their eyes.
Can we keep her?
I laughed, and the girl turned to me. I bent down next to her, shooing away the animals for a moment.
“Welcome to the forest, little one.” She smiled at my words, though I wasn’t sure she really understood them. Her dress was wet from the dew in the grass, and I realized it was the same cornflower blue I had worn all those years ago. I took her hands, adorned with patches of dirt, and helped her up. Already, I could hear cries and shouts coming from the direction of the village. I led her, along with the animals who greeted her, to the edge of the forest. The leopard nudged her forward, and she looked back at us before taking wobbly steps towards the village. I watched from the shadows of the trees as a woman came and scooped her up and held her tightly. That was good. She was loved.
The woman briskly walked away without sparing the woods a glance, and we all retreated back into our home. Perhaps the girl would come back one day, drawn to the forest as I was. Or maybe she wouldn’t. Perhaps she would remember me, or perhaps not. Somewhere deep down inside me, I hoped she would. She didn’t seem too human.
After all, sometimes even the Witch of the Woods wants a bit of company.