A Clearing in the Forest

I had come into the forest before the sun rose, to clear my head. My dreams during the night had been tormented and when I finally tired of waking every hour or so, I got up, dragged on some warm clothes and walked out of my cabin into the quiet dawn.

The mists swirled in the early morning haze, brushing across the treetops and protecting the forest from the glare of the sun. Ice crystals danced in the light, suspended in the cold winter air.

A thin layer of snow glinted on the forest floor, dusting over fall’s brown and crinkled leaves, clinging to bare branches and evergreen fronds alike. The trees were tall and rose up into the sky high above me like a soaring cathedral spire.

Every now and then, I heard a cracking sound as cold branches high overhead rubbed and creaked in the languid air currents. Other than those few sounds, and my footfalls, all was silent and still.

I’m not sure how long I had been wandering when I happened upon a doe. She moved daintily, steam drifting from her nostrils with every exhale. She nosed at some moss and clipped at the bits of grass still green under the snow. She didn’t pay me any heed but every now and then, she looked towards three cypress trees grouped together in the centre of a small clearing.

I followed her gaze. The ground under the three trees was soft, dark and green; there was no snow there. I could not see anything but trees and ground and moss. But the deer  seemed to be looking at something; she seemed to see more than just a forest floor swept clear of snow.

As though spellbound, I moved quietly in a circle around the thicket and continued to look back and forth between the doe and the trees. I had a feeling that there was something there, something more than my eyes could see. I felt that something was urging me to stay, to look again, rather than to continue my walk.

And then, as if through a trick of the light-perhaps I had looked from a different angle-a veil seemed to shimmer, the veil of everyday perception, and I thought for a moment I could see something.

***

A woman lies on a bed of soft, red pine needles and lush green grass, her white dress shimmering in the gentle light. Her auburn hair falls in waves over her shoulders, down to her waist. She is neither young nor old; she is ageless. Her skin is smooth yet her countenance suggests wisdom, authority, experience. Even in her sleep.

She lies in the midst of several younger slumbering maidens dressed in simple, white cotton frocks.

As she begins to make sounds, murmurs of waking, a slow crescendo of fluttering fills the air. The ice crystals that had, moments before, floated lazily in the shafts of sunlight, begin to twirl, to speed up, and hasten towards the woman. Their tiny wings are visible now, distinct from their white velvet bodies, and, if anyone could see them, they would appear to be half-moth, half human. They encircle the trees, and a shudder of anticipation radiates out from the clearing. The maids also begin to wake.

The doe lifts her head and watches, forgetting the grass and moss.

The woman stretches languidly, opens her eyes, and rolls over to look around. Though it is winter and though she wears only the white dress, she is not cold.

She calls out, her voice shattering the calm silence.

“Spirits and sprites, nymphs and faeries, are you about?”

“My Queen!” comes the reply from the winged creatures and the maidens in a softly sung chorus.

“Another winter morning dawns,” the Queen remarks, listlessly, looking about her. “Have we news from the King yet? There is so little entertainment at this time of year, while people huddle inside their cottages against the chill. So few come out to walk in the woods these days.”

The small airborne creatures approach the Queen, their tiny, delicate wings beating with some effort as they hold between them what looks to be a necklace.

“My Queen,” they repeat, “we have made for you a necklace of snowflakes. Let us tie it about your neck!”

The Queen smiles and begins to bow her head so that they may do so. But out of the corner of her eye, she sees something-someone-standing on the edge of the clearing. She freezes, staring at the girl. She is a plain looking girl, dressed in blue jeans and olive green wellingtons, with a thick, warm sweater under her red quilted vest. She wears a colourful woollen hat pulled down low over her long, brown hair. The hat shadows her furrowed brow but her look of curiosity, of confusion, is plain. She seems dazed, spellbound, and in an instant, the Queen thinks she understands why.

“How now, you little fiend. Puck!” cries out the Queen. “Are you about?”

Silence.

“Puck, if this be your doing, I shall have to have a word with your master.”

At this, the air seems to ripple. The Queen feels a breath of winter cold before the warmth is restored around her.

“It is you! I command you to show yourself.” She frowns in frustration, a flush rising to her cheeks as she thinks that Oberon must not, then, be far.

A small boy appears, wrapped in a cloak of green leaves, his elfin face bright with mischievous glee.

“Good day, Queen! Do you like your present?”

“Present? What present? I hope you speak of something other than that girl over yonder. The necklace, perhaps, that the faeries have made?”

A giggle. “No, my Queen, I do speak of the girl. I know you tire of the winter, alone in the forest, without the distraction of those who would frolic here during the warmer months. I found her walking here this dawn and I brought her to you.”

Puck smiles brightly, almost bouncing with excitement and pride at his good idea. When he had seen the girl walking at dawn, he had been overcome by inspiration. He knew by now that Titania became despondent as winter wore on and that his master, upon his return, would bear the brunt of her moods. The girl, he was sure, would be the perfect distraction. Perhaps he could weave a spell, bring her into their midst, welcome her to their world. She had an aloneness, a sadness about her which he could feel.

As he stands there, he begins to feel more inspired. Perhaps they could help her, bid her join them, and she could help them by cheering Titania. For Titania was always keen to add to her retinue.

“Silly little fool!” The Queen is standing now, and her objection to his idea snaps him out of his daydream. “This is not the kind of entertainment I had in mind. I don’t know what you’re thinking, but this girl does not belong with us. You will return her to her home.”

“But, my Queen, she is all alone. Would you not like her to join you? Would you not like to give her the chance…”

“Silence, young boy,” interrupts the Queen. “You do not understand these things. You will go now, and lead her back the way she came. Bring her back to her home, then return to me. And no games!”

Cowed, Puck bows his head, the smile now gone from his face. He turns to go.

“Puck?” The Queen’s voice is softer now, probing. “Puck, is Oberon about?”

“Yes, my Queen, he should be here before I return.” Puck makes a face to himself, thinking that Oberon will find Titania in a foul mood, despite his best intentions.

“Very well. Now, get thee hence! And do not forget; no games.”

***

I do not know how long I stood in the clearing, gazing at the trees, trying to decide what it was I had seen. Whatever it was, it had not reappeared. Eventually, I roused myself as if from a daydream I could not quite remember and noticed that my feet and hands had grown numb. Shaking my head in an attempt to clear it, I looked one last time towards the clearing and then turned to walk home through the woods.

I walked as though I was half dreaming. I could not quite bring myself back to the full alertness with which I had begun my walk. I looked up into the sky, a distant, clear blue far above me, and realized with some detachment that I must have been out in the woods for hours. Though still dark in the forest, I could see from the sky that dawn’s haze had burned away and had been replaced by a dazzling, bright morning.

As I ambled along, I noticed objects in the forest I had not seen on previous walks: a hollowed birch tree had fallen in a way that resembled a boat, a collection of red toadstools stood just off the path looking so perfect they could have been fashioned out of clay, a ring of standing stones, a cave.

I paused when I saw the cave. For some reason, I felt a sense of overwhelming curiosity, an urge to take a closer look. I left the path and, stepping gingerly through the ferns and other underbrush, approached it. Why had I never noticed it before? I looked back toward the path and was sure that I had passed this way before, yet I didn’t think I had ever seen a cave. Then again, I couldn’t really be sure.

I looked back at the cave and stared into the yawning blackness which swallowed up the light. Tentatively, I stepped up onto the stone which formed a ledge at the entrance. Balancing there, between the shadows of the forest and the Erebusic darkness, I felt dizzy, off balance. Reaching out to steady myself, I missed the wall of rock and stumbled into the cave. As I looked back, I could see only darkness. I thought perhaps I had stumbled and turned around, but there was no light coming from any direction. I no longer knew which way was in and which way out.

Feeling a panic rising in my throat, I turned frantically on the spot, looking in all directions but seeing nothing. I raised my hand up in front of my face, but even that was lost in blackness. Where was I?

As I lowered my hand, blinking, a faint greyness seemed to open up to my right. Sliding my feet forward carefully, I headed towards it, thinking it must be the entrance through which I had stumbled. I couldn’t quite understand how I had come so far into the cave; the grey gloom seemed to be further away than it should have been.

As I approached it, shapes began to form between the shadows and the blackness. I saw a stone angled like a door left ajar. I could see now that the grey was not quite light, more the absence of darkness, and it was emanating from the other side of the stone.

At the last moment, before I passed out of the cave and into the grey, I felt a soft push from behind me. I glanced back over my shoulder but now there was only forest in that direction. Disoriented, I turned to face forward again and my legs collapsed beneath me as shock stopped my heart.

I had fallen to the floor, my floor, the floor of my cabin in the woods. The front door stood ajar behind me, and through it, I glimpsed the forest beyond.

This is a story I have been trying to figure out for a few months. The daily prompt from January 1 and the photograph from last week’s weekly photo challenge inspired me to get back to it again. It still needs some work I think, but I wanted to share it now and invite any constructive criticism you may have.

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