A single drop of rain raced along the broad surface of the spade-shaped leaf that stretched out in front of my hiding place. It followed the intricate pattern made by the indentations from many snaking veins until it finally found the downward sloping valley at the center of the leaf. It picked up speed, as well as nearby beads of water, until it finally reached the pointed tip. It clung desperately to its final point of contact and I willed it to hold on.
I held my breath as another droplet followed the same water-slick trail, racing heedlessly, straight into the still-clinging raindrop. The delicate balance which allowed one or the other to remain was upset. The first drop fell. I closed my eyes and then plugged my ears. I did not want to hear it hit the ground.
I tried to hold on to the image of the raindrops, but against my will it changed. In my mind’s eye the droplets morphed into two children, sliding recklessly along the mossy branches, laughing and shouting, until one of the children slipped. At the last minute she grabbed the branch with one hand and screamed for help.
The other child moved quickly, lying down on the damp moss she gripped the other child’s arm. Both of them were glistening from sweat. The thick mist that hovered around them was beginning to coalesce into a light rain.
The dangling girl let go of the branch and wrapped her long fingers around the hand of the other, the one who was safe.
They screamed in unison as their hands slid apart and brilliant green eyes that were wide with fear disappeared into the mist below.
It was the last image I had of her. I would see it forever.
I squeezed my eyelids together more tightly and a tear worked its way loose. It careened down my damp cheek until it reached the tip of my chin. I wiped the tear gently with the palm of my hand before I opened my eyes, eyes that matched hers, and then I closed my fingers around the small stain. I pulled my knees into my chest and rested my forehead on the bony peaks. My long green hair shifted and curled around the dark brown skin of my arms and back. I blended perfectly into my surroundings.
I listened to the rain make music on the leaves and I told myself I would go back as soon as it stopped. In my heart I knew that was a lie.
I could never go back.
Thousands of brightly colored birds chirped, sang, and squawked about the arrival of morning, creating such a racket that I couldn’t even pretend to sleep. I didn’t know where to go or what to do, so I sat in the little hollow high up in the tree where I’d spent the night until hunger, thirst, and other primordial needs finally drove me out.
My hands stretched forward, leading the way onto the the thick limb in front of me. I crawled forward and was instantly warmed by the sunlight streaming in patches through the thick green canopy.
It seemed wrong for it to be such a beautiful day.
I stood and walked forward slowly, feeling the soft moss recede and form to the soles of my feet with each step. I stopped when I reached the point where a long vine dangled close enough that I could grasp it in both hands. It felt thick and sturdy as I backed up several steps. My legs stretched their full length as I bounded forward in three great strides and then pushed off.
The wind whipped green tendrils of hair out behind me. My eyes closed and I reveled in the brief sensation of flight.
I almost smiled, but the silence behind me where there should have been shrieks of laughter pulled my lips back together.
I missed my sister.
I traveled all morning, walking, sliding, and swinging through my forest. I ate fruit and chewed on sugar bark; twice I stopped and drank from shallow pools where yesterday’s rain had collected in the junction of a large limb and its massive trunk.
As the sun moved past its zenith I began to wonder how far it was to the edge of the forest. The old ones said that there was a place far away from here that had no trees. No trees! I couldn’t even imagine what that might look like.
The old ones also said that if a person traveled far enough they would reach the place where spirits dwell.
Perhaps I could find her.
Each of the old ones had done it, before they became an old one. It was a requirement, a test, and those who returned were revered. There weren’t more than a dozen old ones.
The thought of being that far from home, completely alone, made my throat constrict with emotion. But what other choice did I have?
For five days I traveled, gathering food and tucking it into a pouch I’d made from a giant leaf. On the sixth day, before the sun was midway through the sky, I slid to the end of a long limb and stopped.
Stretched out before me was a rolling field of yellow-green grass dotted with tiny flowers. The undulating sea of vegetation extended all the way to the vast blue horizon. I had never seen so much sky.
I backtracked until I found a good vine and slid all the way to the ground. The soil was drier here than it was back home. Twigs and dead leaves crackled beneath my feet as I moved toward the grassy plain.
I stood before the waist high grass and gazed out at the treeless expanse. I took a deep breath and then placed one foot in a whole new world.
Long blades of grass tickled my legs. The sun beat down relentlessly on the crown of my head causing sweat to trickle through my long hair. As my feet carried me tentatively forward I began to feel nervous, exposed. There was nowhere to hide on this treeless plain, no shade, no fruit; would there be water? How would I find it?
My breathing began to come in short gasps as as these questions raced through my mind. I considered going back, but one last glance at my forest is all that I allowed myself before continuing resolutely onward.
For a full day I walked, rationing my edibles carefully since I had no idea how long they would have to last. When night came I simply laid down where I was. The sky spread above me like an endless black lake within which swam a myriad of strange creatures outlined by tiny dots of light. I began to name each form, beginning on my left and working my way slowly across the canopy. There was one I named Arbra, for my mother. Another I named Fern because it looked like my pet treehopper with those feathery protrusions on its back. Another looked so much like a face, with eyes staring at me in longing, that I named it Caren, for my sister. Before I’d made it halfway sleep took me in her arms and held me close through the warm night.
I started awake and knew immediately that something was wrong. I raised my torso and pulled my legs underneath my body in a tight crouch that would allow me to either break into a run or shield myself, depending upon the need.
Before me, also crouched but in a pose that appeared not the least bit wary, was an old woman. She was dressed in a collection of hides that were so dirty the original colors could not be determined. Her hair was long and white, as wispy as threads of silk upon which baby spiders flew to their new homes. Over the small fire in front of her, meat was roasting.
A full minute passed before she finally looked up at me. I recoiled instinctively from the pock-marked and heavily lined face. Her lips pulled back in what she must have intended to be a friendly smile, revealing gaps between worn and blackened teeth. I suppressed a shudder.
“You must be hungry, come sit down then.” The old woman spoke in a voice that sounded as if it had been silent for years.
I relaxed slightly, deciding the bent figure was no threat to me, but I did not yet approach the fire.
“How did you find me?” I asked.
“Easy enough,” the woman replied. “You left a clear trail through the grass, straight on, tramping everything down. Thought it must be a wounded animal, careless as it was, so I followed hoping to add a bit more to this measly rodent.” She nodded her head toward the small carcass dripping juices onto the crackling flames. “Instead I found you.”
“What’s your name?” I asked, daring to take one step toward the fire.
“Bryony,” the old woman replied. “What’s yours?”
“My name is Safia.”
“And how old are you Safia?” Bryony asked.
“Fourteen rings,” I replied, squaring my shoulders a bit.
The old woman let out a harsh sounding cackle that quickly turned into a cough.
“Fourteen eh,” she said once she’d recovered, “and decided to become an old one already?”
My brow knit together in confusion. How did she know where I was going? And then she answered my silent question.
“No one comes out of that forest unless they’re journeying to the place of the souls child.”
“How old are you?” I asked as I finally worked up the courage to sit by the fire and accept her offer of meat.
“More rings than one tree can hold. As many rings as the entire forest,” she replied.
Deciding that it was best not to answer such a blatant lie, I bent over my meal and savored the hot juices that filled my mouth.
When we had finished the old woman declared that it was time to move on; apparently she planned on joining me. I offered to carry her heavy pack and she accepted with a nod.
We walked for days, though walked might be a bit of an exaggeration. Bryony was knarled and bent, she was as slow as a snail leaving its trail of slime along a branch. If she hadn’t had an uncanny ability to find water holes, I might have considered leaving her behind. If I was being honest though, I felt better for having her there. She was my only company in this lonely place, so I checked my pace and allowed my mind to wander on endless daydreams.
That’s why I noticed the danger a few steps too late.
A seething mass of roots erupted from the ground in front of me. Before I could take a step back the white tendrils twisted around my ankles and tightened painfully. Falling backwards I tried to scrabble away as more of the roots closed around my calves and thighs.
“Bryony, help!” I cried.
My body twisted as I tried to find Bryony. When I saw her she was standing still, her eyes were closed; she could have been sleeping.
A slow smile shifted the creases of her face, but she did not open her eyes nor move to help. The clinging roots began to drag me along the dusty ground.
My arms reached out in desperation. My fingers closed around blades of grass and came away bloody as the sharp edges sliced my skin. Clods of earth crumbled in the palm of my hand as I tried to hold on to something, anything.
A scream welled up within me, but before it found its way to my lips I remembered my Mother’s last words.
“You are the eldest Safia. You must be responsible and watch out for your sister. Bring her back safely.”
I had nodded solemnly in response to my Mother’s words, and then I had failed. My sister had fallen through the mist. I felt compelled to travel to the place where the spirits dwell. I could not fail again.
My body twisted again. Grasping the nearest root I pulled as hard as I could. My lean muscles strained until there was a sudden release. The end of the root tore from the ground and lay suddenly lifeless in my hands.
Throwing it to the side I grasped another. My heart raced as I looked up and realized that I was being pulled toward a gaping hole in the ground; a hole I was certain had not been there before.
Another root was torn from the ground and wilted in my hand. I grasped and pulled until my arms burned. My eyes blinked furiously against the sweat that ran down my face.
A hand on my shoulder made me jump and I looked up to see Bryony nodding.
“Well done,” she said. “They have retreated.”
Allowing myself to pause and take a breath, I looked back and saw that there were no more of the long white tendrils reaching out for me. White strings were strewn all around, but they remained still.
The hole was also gone.
“What were they?” I asked, rising to my feet and dusting myself off.
“A test,” Bryony replied.
I frowned when no further explanation was given.
“Take them,” Bryony said, nodding toward the scattered roots.
Bending down I took one of the long threads tentatively between two fingers. I held it out and away from my body until I felt confident that it would not try to bind me again.
Once I had gathered all of the roots, I noticed that Bryony was already several paces away.
I jogged to catch up and then slowed when I reached her side.
“Bryony, did you see the hole?” I asked.
The old woman did not respond.
We walked in silence for a few moments as I thought about all those who had set out from the forest, hoping to return a venerated member of the community. I remembered also how few actually did return.
“How many tests will there be?” I asked in a quiet voice.
For the rest of that day I remained vigilant, scanning the path ahead, the sky above. I did not stray from Bryony’s side.
Two more days passed before I learned what the next challenge would be.
My fingers worked of their own accord, nimbly weaving the long tendrils of unearthed roots together into a long rope. The idea had occurred to me the first evening after that test. Sitting by the fire with no weapon I had felt anxious, vulnerable. We had no real means of protection except perhaps Bryony’s stone-tipped spear which she typically used as a walking stick. Somehow I wasn’t too keen on the thought of relying on the old woman for help. After all, she had simply stood there, watching, smiling even as I was dragged across the ground.
Therefore I decided to take the matter into my own hands. It had taken me two nights but now I was down to the last root. I worked it into the rope and then stood. Pulling at various points, I tested the strength of my work. Satisfied, I looped one end and tied it back around on itself.
Looking down at my lasso reminded me of the many times my sister Caren and I had chased and captured each other with loops made from the long dangling vines of the forest. I could picture her scampering through the moss, green hair flying, as her laughter rang out and was then absorbed by water-logged vegetation.
Tears formed at the corners of my eyes and I sat back down heavily.
Bryony glanced down at me but said nothing.
The flames from the evening’s cookfire danced before my eyes, the swirl and lick of orange and yellow tongues was mesmerizing. My lids were half-closed in peaceful fascination when I heard a low rumble accompanied by the hiss of swiftly parting grass.
Squinting into the waning light I stood and looked in the direction of the sound. The ground began to vibrate beneath my feet.
“Bryony, what is it?” I whispered.
“Your next test,” she replied.
She answered at least, which is more than I had expected. Crouching with eyes narrowed in concentration, I scanned the horizon and finally saw the head and lethal looking point of a horn protruding from the nose of some strange beast. It was racing straight for us.
My eyes darted to Bryony, who sat calmly tending the fire, then back to the approaching animal. The creature showed no signs of slowing.
What was I supposed to do?
My eyes flitted back and forth, assessing the situation, and waiting to see if Bryony would move, or react in any way at all. She, of course, did not.
The beast was now a few body lengths from the fire, whipping its horn back and forth in a deadly display. I dove for Bryony and knocked her out of the way just as the massive front feet of the animal crashed down where Bryony had sat moments before.
Finally, it stopped its headlong flight and turned one beady eye on the two of us, sprawled and vulnerable where we lay in the dirt.
The creature rounded on us and began to shift its weight to its back legs, which allowed it to lift its front legs and lunge for our heads.
“Roll!” I yelled as I pulled Bryony with me.
This time I recovered quickly and sprang to my feet. I looked around for Bryony’s spear but my eyes fell first on my length of rope.
Before I could change my mind I dashed along the animal’s side and retrieved my woven roots. The beast lumbered around to face me. It reared again and this time when it lifted its front feet off the ground I lassoed one leg, then ran under and away from the creature on its opposite side.
The line jerked taut suddenly and I was yanked off my feet, but it worked.
The leg that I had lassoed was pulled across the animal’s mid-line, throwing it off balance. As it came down it turned and crashed to its side. The earth shook from the impact.
I moved swiftly to tie all four feet together as tightly as I could before it rose again.
Finally I paused to take a breath. With hands resting on my knees I lifted my head and tried to find Bryony.
The old woman appeared through the dust which was still settling around the hind end of the animal.
“What am I supposed to do now?” I asked.
“Take its horn,” she replied.
My eyes shifted to the beast. Its sides were heaving and its beady eyes were rolling in fear or frustration. I looked at the great pointed horn and frowned.
“How?” I asked.
“You ask for it.”
My frown deepened, but I approached the animal slowly.
“Um, may I have your horn please?” I asked in a small voice.
I heard Bryony’s snort behind me.
“Not like that fool child. It doesn’t understand your words.”
Taking a deep breath, I reached out with one hand, tentatively placing my fingers on the cool smooth surface of the horn.
My eyes closed and I tried to convey my situation, my turmoil of emotions, as I remembered the events which had brought me to this moment. I pictured my sister, falling into the mist, and the need that drove me forward; a need to find peace for both our souls.
My fingers tightened around the horn as a tear escaped from beneath one lid and rolled down my filthy cheek.
The horn began to feel warm against my palm. My eyes opened and I saw that the horn glowed slightly, and then began to shimmer. I tried to pull away, but I could not release my grip. Instead, the horn came away in my hand.
I gasped and cradled it against my body, then looked into the now calm eye of the beast.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
Cloying mist hung in the valley below, obscuring any hint of depth or distance. I stood with my toes at the edge of the precipice, squinting into the gray world before me.
We had arrived.
“Now you must do as I told you,” Bryony commanded.
Looking down at the length of woven roots and the long pointed horn, fear wormed its way into my belly and spread. I tried to swallow my panic down, but no moisture remained in my mouth.
“Alright,” I said. “For Caren.”
With my right hand I gripped the horn and turned it point down. I knelt to the ground and drove the tip into the earth. Next I took one end of my rope and tied it around the piece of horn that protruded.
I glanced back at Bryony.
The old woman nodded.
With my heart hammering in my chest, I gripped the rope with both hands, then turned and began to lower myself over the edge of the cliff.
The first few steps were the worst. Once oriented with my back to the invisible abyss I breathed more evenly. My feet disappeared into the mist, followed by my legs. I had one last look at Bryony’s face before the world closed around me.
Then I began to hear voices.
They were soft, fleeting sounds. A snatch of laughter here, a whispered word or two there. The pounding cadence of my heart increased, but I continued, as Bryony had instructed.
The descent seemed eternal. My rope should have run out long ago, I thought, but time and distance were difficult to judge. Finally, I reached a narrow ledge. With a sigh of relief I placed my feet on a horizontal plane and then turned away from the rock wall, toward the valley of souls.
The mist seemed to shift before me. A small brown hand reached out.
I backed away, gasping in shock, but did not have far to go. My back met rock and I had no where else to go.
The hand was followed by and arm, and then a pair of wide green eyes.
“Caren?” I breathed.
It had to be.
Tentatively I stretched my own hand out. My fingers wrapped around her wrist and a sob of joy escaped my lips when I felt her solid flesh against mine.
“Safia?” she asked in a small voice.
I pulled her small form forward and wrapped her in a tight embrace. Her green hair tickled my chin, I could smell the scent of moss on her skin. She was real.
“Am I dreaming?” Caren asked as she looked up at me.
I laughed and hugged her again.
“I’m not sure,” I replied.
“Can we leave? I don’t like it here.”
“Yes! Here Caren, take this rope.” I placed the length of woven roots in her hand. “You have to climb. I’ll be right behind you.”
The trip out of the valley seemed much faster than my journey into mist. Moments passed and then we stood again at the top.
“Who is this?” Caren asked as she backed a step away from the bent old woman who waited there.
“This is Bryony. She helped me find you,” I replied, and then turned to Bryony. “Bryony, this is my sister, Caren.”
Bryony nodded slowly.
A giggle welled up within me but I managed to suppress it. This all seemed so surreal. I felt certain I would wake up any moment.
“Can we go home?” Caren asked.
I took my sister’s hand in mine and nodded.
“Yes. Let’s go home.”
Trees towered above me, majestic and welcoming. Caren and I ran forward, laughing in delight. After a few steps I stopped, remembering Bryony, and turned to find her reaching out with one had. She felt the air, like a blind person groping for an object they know must be there somewhere.
Returning to her side I noticed there were tears in her eyes.
“Bryony? Are you alright?” I asked.
She nodded, but seemed unable to speak.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s been so long,” she whispered.
I frowned as I looked from her to the forest.
“You belong here? Are you one of us?”
Bryony finally looked at me.
“I used to be child, long ago.”
“What happened to you Bryony?”
“I left, just as you did. Made it all the way to the place of the spirits, but when I returned I could not enter. It was as if an invisible wall had been built in my absence. I was trapped on the wrong side.”
She reached a hand out again.
“Is it still there?” I asked, getting nervous as I watched Caren waiting beneath the trees.
Bryony shook her head and smiled.
“Then let’s go, Bryony. We’ll take you home.”
We walked arm in arm into the shade of the trees. Tears flowed freely down Bryony’s face.
“Bryony,” I asked as we continued through the forest, “what were your tests?”
“I had one test Safia, and it was patience. I was waiting for you.”